Review: When ‘Julius Caesar’ feasted on sukiyaki

 Joe Guzman (left) as Cassius and Forrest McClendon as Julius Caesar in Lantern Theater Company's production of William Shakespeare's 'Julius Caesar.' (Photo courtesy of Mark Garvin)

Joe Guzman (left) as Cassius and Forrest McClendon as Julius Caesar in Lantern Theater Company's production of William Shakespeare's 'Julius Caesar.' (Photo courtesy of Mark Garvin)

Did you hear the one about the conquering Roman soldiers who were heading home but ended up in Tokyo? They lost their focus, but got a deal on a camera.

Which leads us straight to Lantern Theater, where “Julius Caesar” is being set not in ancient Rome but in feudal Japan. The production has lost its focus – or more likely left it behind in the 6,151 Alitalia air miles between the two places.

And that camera? Well, the pictures we get back from the erstwhile troops are blurry at best. Here we have Shakespeare’s characters talking about their Aenead roots, their ancestries on the streets of Rome, the fact that they are Roman through and through. Yet they take to a stage with Meghan Jones’ large Japanese screens to one side, and they’re dressed in Brian Strachan’s Japanese garb, from the head-gear to the toes.

When Marc Antony calls forth “friends … Romans … countrymen,” it’s not clear what country he’s supposed to be referring to. What’s clear is that no one thought this concept through – certainly not Lantern’s artistic director Charles McMahon, who stages what could be called “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar in the Land of the Rising Sun.”

I’m the first to agree that William Shakespeare is the most pliable of playwrights. He’s been dead just shy of 398 years, so he can’t protest and he left no estate to complain for him. More to the point, his themes are timeless, so his plays can be bent to reflect a current political struggle or social issue.

But Lantern’s “Julius Caesar” reflects nothing except a whim to transfer it to some place alien to its plot – and at that, without courageous conviction. If you’re not going to change the place references in the text – Shakespeare may roll over but he won’t sue you – maybe you could make the program booklet reflect your intentions. The cast page tells us that this play is still set in 44 B.C. (Japan began its feudal age in the 12th century). And the place we’re in? “Ancient Rome.”

Huh? The concept is a mess, but the Lantern’s delivery of the text is not. The real star of the show is Jered McLenigan, who invests his portrayal of Marc Antony with a stunning depth of feeling. He has an authoritative voice and a perfect delivery that makes Shakespeare’s language current. McLenigan speaks many of the play’s better-known lines naturally and it’s worth the show just to watch him deliver the famous oration that makes Marc Antony a crafty mensch — or should I say a samurai?

Forrest McClendon is a convincing Caesar with a piercing stare, and Joe Guzmán, Matt Tallman, Bradley K. Wrenn and Adam Altman are fine as his buddies/betrayers. Kittson O’Neill and Mary Lee Bednarek bring heft to their smaller parts as the wives of Brutus and Caesar. As Brutus, the actor U.R. uses the only foreign accent in the production, and it trails into many countries, beginning with England, then the United States (maybe Canada). When he’s introducing Marc Antony at Caesar’s public memorial, U.R. begins to sound like he speaks English with a Japanese accent – as apt as anything else here. He speaks his lines with a lilt, and when they’re passionately delivered he’s a persuasive Brutus, but he loses many of the words in his odd patois. The production itself loses much of its dialogue in the latter-show war scenes.

I’d be remiss not to mention the stormy lighting and sound and music by Shon Causer, Mark Valenzuela and Christopher Colucci. In truth, though, I come to bury “Caesar” and not to praise it – it’s broken by misguided decisions in addition to its concept. The nine players become overused in other roles – no matter how solid an actor Forrest McClendon is (and he is), it’s hard to buy into him as a soldier in the second half after he’s played the title role in the first half, which ends with his murder.

That murder is nicely done, sometimes in silhouette, when the conspirators take up their Japanese weapons and slice Caesar into high-grade sashimi. Yet it lacks a single drop of blood, even as his killers are supposedly smearing their hands in it. We witness a turning point in the play but sense an irony: all that attention to the conspirators’ Japanese costumes, yet nary a drachma for a tube of stage blood.

But then, well-conceived Japanese costumes won’t make us believe this “Julius Caesar” in any case. You can remove your Temple T-shirt, take off your Phillies cap and wrap yourself in a kimono, then proceed to go on about Ben Franklin and cheesesteaks. That doesn’t drop you square into Kyoto.

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“The Tragedy of Julius Caesar,” produced by Lantern Theater Company, runs through March 16 at St. Stephen’s Theater, 10th and Ludlow Streets (between Market and Chestnut). 215-829-0395 or www.lanterntheater.org.

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