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A CurtainUp Philadelphia Review
The Tragedy of Julius Caesar
Although the production features music, decor, and costumes fashioned in the spirit of feudal Japan, the play isn't relocated to Japan, but set in ancient Rome where men are asked to "Show yourselves true Romans," as they wear kimono variations including hakama, a type of Samurai pants. And they employ sliding Japanese screens in their architecture.
The intention must have been to take a fresh look at the work and perhaps help the audience focus on philosophical and dramatic issues rather than fixate on "This is part of the Important Shakespeare Canon." Granted, the clothes are more interesting than togas, but instead of aiding understanding, the costume choice diverts attention to itself.
If a production's going to go all classical Nippon, wouldn't it be interesting to push the concept further and venture into the Noh tradition, a la Munakata Ueda's Noh Shakespeare? Or lace the performance with Kabuki ritual theater, which, like Shakespeare, would comment on current events through the safer lens of the past? But such approaches would involve a lengthy and complex rehearsal process that just isn't practicable. For this reason, it would have been wiser to let the Japanese trimmings go.
Charles McMahon's solid direction may have been trumped by the unique set and costumes, but Julius Caesar has intrinsic problems for which this director can't be blamed: Where there should be evidence of a particular bond between Caesar and Brutus, there's a huge gap. It was Shakespeare who skipped over the basis for this much touted relationship. And it was Shakespeare who, for obvious reasons, represented battle scenes with economy of action, basically through messages from the front. The Lantern's small cast, composer and sound and lighting designers do their best with it, but scenes transpiring during the battle get awfully confusing.
Forrest McClendon's admirable deportment suits Julius Caesar who, although an epileptic spooked by signs and portents, must maintain the bearing of a ruler. Jered McLenigan turns in an illuminating performance as the dangerous and subtle opportunist, Antony, who unleashes the populace, and who must ultimately acknowledge un-ironically that Brutus was "the noblest Roman of them all." Actor U.R.'s interesting and moody portrayal of flawed but noble Brutus is impaired by his diction, which is hard to understand at critical times. Joe Guzmán's Cassius embodies calculating malicious energy, and Matt Tallman makes the plum role of Casca come alive. Other ensemble members, Adam Altman, Mary Lee Bednarek, Kittson O'Neill, and Bradley K. Wrenn contribute much and dispatch dialogue trippingly on the tongue.
An excellent cast backed by music, noise, thunder, lights, and insistent drums makes for a lively Julius Caesar production. Unfortunately, the chosen aesthetic doesn't penetrate the play enough to justify the choice. (These but the trappings and the suits of … Japan.) Whole generations of audiences haven't seen Julius Caesar performed. They aren't tired of togas yet.