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Ambition Should Be Made of Sterner Stuff Hot

Jennifer Kramer
Written by Jennifer Kramer     February 17, 2014    
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Ambition Should Be Made of Sterner Stuff

Photos: Mark Garvin

  • Julius Caesar
  • by William Shakespeare
  • Lantern Theater Company
  • February 6 - March 16, 2014
Acting 3
Costumes 3
Sets 4
Directing 3
Overall 3

In his notes about his production of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar for the Lantern Theater, director Charles McMahon discusses the universality of the work’s themes, where a play notionally about one episode in ancient history nevertheless touches upon issues relevant to audiences across the globe for hundreds of years. To highlight that universality, McMahon chose to base the Lantern's production on "the imagery of feudal Japan," drawing on the similarities between “the Zen tradition of the Japanese warrior class and the stoicism of the Romans.” Presumably, he means the Edo period, a time of strict social division when Japan's de facto rulers were the military: the shogun and the daimyo supported by the samurai, whose code of moral values (known by the modern term bushido) was and is hugely influential. However, this potentially apt setting is undermined by a superficial reading and lack of attention to detail, flaws that plague many levels of the production.

On a technical level, McMahon's direction suffers from several missteps. The stage-fighting leaves much to be desired when it comes to representing trained warriors, and having the poet Cinna killed by a mob using the offensive capabilities of the Three Stooges only adds insult to injury. More generally, there are some distracting problems with the blocking. Not much use is made of the set's interior region, and most of the action takes place a little too far downstage; thanks to theater's wedge-shaped stage, several scenes feature pairs of actors who both manage to have their backs to the audience while simultaneously obscuring each other.

Though McMahon has worked with small casts to great effect in the past, as in last year's Henry V, the doubling of parts in this production is much less successful. Suspension of disbelief is difficult to maintain due to the sheer numbers of roles played, and many of the secondary characters come off as literally interchangeable. Moreover, the lack of representation for Asian-American actors gives the production a distressingly Orientalist bent, distracting from its otherwise fairly diverse and talented cast.

Each member of the cast turns in a strong performance, but as an ensemble they cannot quite come together. The most pressing issue is that collectively, they are some of the least Zen samurai/stoic Romans ever. Almost every character is oversupplied with emotional speeches delivered at top volume, drowning out more subtle effects and diminishing the individual impact of each character's passion. The biggest casualty of this is U.R.'s Brutus: he offers an intriguing take on the character, affable and long-suffering, but when his pleasant calm seems to have almost no effect on his excitable friends and family, it is difficult to see how their purported high regard can coexist with their apparent lack of respect.

Forrest McClendon fares better as Caesar because he can command appropriate reactions: Caesar's strength of feeling is not uncommon in this Rome, but McClendon gives him a physical presence and a charisma even his enemies acknowledge. Yet one cannot help but wish for more contrast to allow his portrayal the power it deserves. The cast is certainly capable of delivering more varied performances: Kittson O'Neill as the Soothsayer, for example, tempers her uncanny mannerisms and supernatural edge with the hint of warmth for Caesar, then reverses the dynamic as Portia, whose affection for her husband is steeped with unnerving glimpses of her troubled mental state. However, because this confrontation is tonally very similar to the scene between Calpurnia (Mary Lee Bednarek) and her husband, the play's distinctions between the characters – the different ways Portia and Brutus interpret their stoic philosophy, Calpurnia's prescient belief in superstitions versus Caesar's greater dedication to his pride – are nearly lost.

The costume design by Brian Strachan suffers a similar loss of nuance: he establishes a coherent theme of flowing trousers and colorful mantles and robes, but each character's costume seems more or less interchangeable, usually lacking any stamp of their individual personalities. (There are a few notable exceptions: the Soothsayer's veiled sedge hat gives her finery a ghostly appearance, while Jered McLenigan's Antony refuses to button his shirt and constantly sports a vaguely inappropriate plunging neckline.) While one can sympathize that the limits of a production's budget, or the quick and easy costume changes required by a doubled cast, can definitely conflict with recreating period fashions to a high degree of accuracy, there are surely better solutions than, for example, designing identical mantles for most of the cast whose cut and fabric give them an unfortunate resemblance to Hawaiian shirts, completely ignoring the actors' (blatantly modern) hairstyles, or providing dubious substitutions for the iconic samurai armor.

In contrast, Meghan Jones's set design is deliberately simple. It combines a vaguely Roman pediment with Japanese paper-lined sliding doors, acknowledging both the play's origins and the production's setting. Props are minimal, limited to a few lanterns, banners, and sake glasses. Overall, it works well as a suggestion of the setting, hinting at the philosophy of simplicity allegedly on display.

Another successful component is the production's use of music, provided by Kyo Daiko, Philadelphia's Taiko drum ensemble. The pulsing beat lends an urgency to the play's celebrations and scene transitions, leavened by the haunting flute melodies played by Brutus' servant Lucius. The two come together at last during the end of Act IV, when Lucius' lament is co-opted by martial drums as Caesar's ghost confronts Brutus: the music perfectly underscores U.R.'s and McClendon's performances, and launches the production into the battle scenes of the final act.

Unfortunately, elements like these only highlight the areas where the production does not live up to McMahon and the Lantern's past high standards. Given that there are many intriguing parallels between the late Roman Republic and Edo Japan, it is frustrating that McMahon fails to exploit most of them in a meaningful way; this production of Julius Caesar may be good in theory, but proves unexceptional in execution.

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