Japan? 'Julius Caesar' by Lantern intriguing but distracting

Joe Guzman (left) as Cassius and Forrest McClendon as Julius Caesar in the Lantern Theater Company production.
Joe Guzman (left) as Cassius and Forrest McClendon as Julius Caesar in the Lantern Theater Company production. (MARK GARVIN)
Posted: February 15, 2014

Is there a more terrifying line than Mark Antony's in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: "Cry, 'Havoc!' And let slip the dogs of war"?

This powerful play is about self-deluded warrior-politicians; it is filled with conspiracy, ambition, corruption, betrayal, and tyranny. And if the leaders are vicious, the public, easily manipulated, is worse. The Lantern Theatre production, under the direction of Charles McMahon, is both intriguing and frustrating.

Julius Caesar is a play for all times, as Shakespeare's plays always turn out to be, whether the setting is ancient Rome or the forest of Arden. And because of this universality - when in human history has there not been a war or an unscrupulous politician? - there is no need to underscore Julius Caesar's relevance. We'll get it, whether the characters are wearing togas or three-piece suits. So why, to avoid the togas, did McMahon decide to substitute one shmata for another and locate the play in medieval Japan? Are samurais any more familiar to us than gladiators? The device contributes nothing but distraction.

And speaking of distraction: Brutus - a role of tremendous ambiguity and subtlety, on which the interpretation of the entire drama pivots - is played by U.R., who speaks with an accent and in a rhythm that seems to require subtitles. And why is his face in a permanent sneer? The "noblest Roman of them all"? I don't think so.

Forrest McClendon is strong in the title role; when he says, with intense hubris and force, "The cause is in my will," we believe him. Joe Guzman is excellent as Cassius, delivering his lines with clarity and force.

The play's most interesting role is Mark Antony, and Jered McLenigan gives the most interesting performance, with nuanced passion and oratorical power (although why he keeps shaking his head no is a mystery).

The battle scenes with which the play ends are unintelligible, and the use of women to swell the throng is disconcerting ("thrift, Horatio, thrift!"). The lighting (Shon Causer) is so atmospheric as to be downright dim, and the sound design (Mark Valenzuela) uses crashing Japanese drums to no particular effect. I am tempted to echo a minor character who, lamenting over Cassius' dead body, says, "Alas, thou hast misconstrued everything."


Julius Caesar

Through March 16 at Lantern Theater Co., 10th and Ludlow Sts. Tickets: $30-$38. Information: lanterntheater.org, 215-829-0395.

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