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All of us who love Shakespeare have learned to be wary of a director with a “concept.” This “concept” is usually an artistic flight of fancy in which a particular director, ego momentarily unchecked, thinks that he or she can “improve” on Shakespeare or present some presumably brilliant insight by setting the play in an unusual time or bizarre clime. At best, these allegedly inspired concepts bring very little to the table that is fresh or insightful — at worst, they result in eye-rolling absurdities.
The Lantern Theater’s Charles McMahon brought such a “concept” to his production of Julius Caesar by transferring the story, about the assassination of the great Roman dictator and the subsequent civil war, from classical Rome to feudal Japan. This is one of those artistic indulgences that brings little in the way of insight or novelty to the proceedings, but fortunately didn’t hinder things too much, except for the occasional moment when an actor looked clumsy trying to navigate a scene in bulky samurai robes. We were lucky, however, that once we got past the unhelpful Japanese motif, McMahon managed to pull together a bang-up piece of Shakespeare.
The play opens with Caesar’s triumphant return to Rome after a successful campaign. There is much celebration and in the spirit of that celebration Caesar is offered a crown, which he declines. However, in the eyes of certain members of the nobility, namely Cassius and Casca, Caesar didn’t refuse the crown convincingly enough, and they fear his ambitions. Cassius is able to persuade the noble and loyal Brutus to join the conspiracy, and they all ambush Caesar on the floor of the Senate. Enter Caesar loyalist Marc Antony, who manages to outmaneuver the conspirators and, with a soaring bit of oratory, to turn the crown against them. Antony then joins forces with Caesar’s young nephew Octavian (the future Augustus), and so we have our civil war. If you know history, you know who wins.
McMahon assembled a strong cast of actors who ranged from pretty good to absolutely superb. Joe Guzmán (Cassius) and Forrest McClendon (Caesar) gave strong, interesting performances. An actor with the unusual name of U.R. gave us a Brutus who was relatively weak in Act 1, but he flowered impressively in strength and nuance in Act 2. I particularly liked Matt Tallman’s Casca. He was a relaxed and well-rounded presence onstage, and he was also among the most capable in the cast in his handling of the Shakespearean language.
A fiery phoenix
However, the high point of the cast — and the play — was Jered McLenigan’s Marc Antony. While his brief appearance prior to the stabbing scene gave no hint of his subsequent power, once Antony took center stage McLenigan burst forth like a fiery phoenix. When he launched into Antony’s famous “friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” soliloquy, I literally got chills. McLenigan is the best Shakespearean actor I’ve seen onstage in many a year. Watching him work was thrilling, and his work elevated the entire proceedings to a new level of excellence.
Director McMahon usually does well with his Shakespearean efforts, and Lantern’s annual Shakespearean presentations are more often than not a high point of Philly’s theatrical season. Overall, this year’s Julius Caesar is no exception. Things move along at a good clip, and the staging throughout is mostly smooth, economical, and effective. The main flaw was the Act 2 battle sequences, which were surprisingly dull and even clumsy. It was here that the bulky Japanese robes proved to be the greatest hindrance, and where McMahon’s feudal Japan concept was most notably incongruous. The fight choreography did not reflect the stylistic differences of Japanese theater, which could have proved interesting; instead, the battles were staged in typical American fashion — definitely a missed opportunity.
Despite these complaints, this Julius Caesar is a satisfying and enjoyable Shakespearean experience. It’s worth it to see this fine cast work its magic onstage, because there are moments when this production is truly thrilling. If only someone could have talked the director out of that Japan concept, or failing that, encouraged him to explore it more in his staging.
For Robert Zaller's review, click here.
What, When, Where
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, directed by Charles McMahon, now through March 16 by the Lantern Theater at St. Stephen’s Theater, 923 Ludlow Street, Philadelphia; 215-829-0395; lanterntheater.org.
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