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Julius Caesar — Lantern Theater

Julius Caesar -- Jered -- interior Voices tell the story in  the Lantern production of “Julius Caesar.”

So many of the members of Charles McMahon’s cast have done such sterling work in general during the last several seasons, one might have expected a feast of glorious acting and memorable performances in this Shakespearean classic.

Alas, only one actor speaks in tones that convey the majesty of his character and nobility of a Roman leader at the critical time in 44 B.C. when representative democracy as Rome has known it is at stake, and Julius Caesar is poised to become an all-powerful emperor instead of a chief executive or one third of an equally responsible triumvirate that governs a Roman population that is free from totalitarian dictatorship.

That actor is Jered McLenigan, who as Marc Antony, is refreshing from the first syllable he utters. McLenigan brings tone and a rich vocal standard to a production badly in need of it. Best of all, his carefully pronounced speeches sound more natural and conversational than the more casual, less enunciated deliveries of his castmates.

Even if that master psychologist and knower of human minds, Shakespeare, had not brilliantly plotted Marc Antony’s strategy in speaking to the Roman multitudes after Brutus, or Brutus had been clever enough to let Antony speak first at Caesar’s funeral, McLenigan’s stirringly phrased oratory would have won the day for Antony’s side. His famous speech that begins, “Friends. Romans. Countrymen. Lend me your ears” has staggering weight as delivered by McLenigan. It would, to borrow from Antony, move a stone. How could it not then persuade the multitudes that Antony and Caesar were their best hope and that Brutus, Cassius, and the conspirators acted rashly and with unnecessary violence and finality?

While others in the Lantern cast are good at conveying a feeling or mood by facial expression, or in using posture to show social or political position — U.R., an actor that is more often than not dependably exciting, is excellent as both of these. — only McLenigan fulfills the vocal requirements to breathe total life into Shakespeare’s play and give emphasis to the perennial political wisdom of the piece. Only he goes beyond simple, unadorned clarity to give the Bard’s words texture and meaning.

Charles McMahon’s concept for “Julius Caesar” deserved better. I’m not talking about the director’s choice to set Shakespeare’s play in feudal Japan, an innocuous move that led to a clean, efficient set with handy pocket doors by Meghan Jones and a smart collection of costumes by Brian Strachan. I’m talking about the argument McMahon brings forward about the way a state should be governed. Though none of the conspirators speak with the quality McLenigan does, they are distinct in their diction, and the intent of their characters is clear.

From the conspirators’ point of view, Caesar has the potential to become a dictator. Whether he turns his power to tyranny or not, his having absolute word about the affairs of Rome and the ability to overrule the Senate and tribunes who provide checks and balances as part of Roman tradition are considered dangerous and contrary to the rule of law the republic has enjoyed for decades.

Caesar’s possible ascendance to the rank of emperor does not suit many of the leading citizens of Rome. As much as some acknowledge and admire Caesar’s military ability and leadership skills, they see the potential for overturning one of the better, more protective aspects of the Roman status quo, and they want to argue against the naming of one person as supreme leader or take arms to oppose what they envision as an eventual sea of trouble. The conspirators — Brutus, Cassius, Casca, Cinna, and Metellus Cimber — are honorable men, as Marc Antony will rhetorically call them, and they have an honorable purpose in mind when they consider ways to end what they see as Caesar’s ambition and democratic Rome’s demise. McMahon’s production brings the debate among these leaders to the forefront. It makes the motive of each man transparent and logical from an individual point of view.

It is not as successful at contrasting Caesar with the conspirators. Shakespeare is canny in giving Caesar attitudes and arguments of his own. As written, Caesar has a lot of charm and speaks with much wit. He realizes the conflict that might be afoot and expects some rebellion of a civil nature he can quell by demonstrating Rome need not fear his rule. Shakespeare gives him  the good sense to test the public’s tolerance for any individual’s elevation beyond the level the Senate usually confers. In a crucial scene, played offstage while the audience hears the conspirators’ reactions and reports from the scene, Antony offers Caesar a crown, which he refuses, three times, each time eliciting a roar from the throng assembled to witness the gambit. Caesar is no fool and, in Shakespeare’s text, no less of a figure than Brutus or Cassius, who with him, dominate the early acts of the play while Antony, Brutus, and Cassius are the focus of the scenes following Caesar’s assassination.

Forrest McClendon, a consistently able performer who has been illuminating in many a part, is a calm and affable Caesar, but he doesn’t project the same strength or political prowess that U.R. as Brutus and Joe Guzman as Cassius do. McClendon does  not stride like a Colossus. He speaks softly, walks slowly, and sports a boyish grin. He appears to be more like an assistant undersecretary of state than a man who has conquered vast expanses of the world and looks to be rewarded for his achievements by being named the sole and absolute leader of that world. There’s no bite, no sense that this Caesar is a man among men, so much so that Marc Antony, Octavius, and other key Romans are willing to serve under him and even sacrifice some of their personal freedom as Romans to vault him to the rank of emperor.

McClendon’s ease robs “Julius Caesar” of one its major elements. It renders Shakespeare’s title character as secondary. There is a good scene in which McClendon, as Caesar and Mary Lee Bednarek, as Calpurnia, have a discussion about dreams, partnership between man and wife, and the wisdom of Caesar going to the Capital following some of the auguries about the Ides of March, but while it establishes Caesar as a man who can be sentimental and take another’s reasoning into account, it doesn’t show him to be a leader as forceful or passionate as Brutus or Cassius is. Without Caesar having equal weight and as compelling a case, in spirit, as his adversaries, Shakespeare’s play loses some of its resonance. The conspirators have too easy a time making their point of view the one that prevails.  Though it should be the result of the scenes leading to Caesar’s murder that the audience leans towards the conspirators, there would, in  a balanced production, be some contest  for audience allegiance. That’s how pity for Caesar’s fate, and terror about his killing and its aftermath are established.

Pity and terror do not figure in to the Lantern production. And all because Caesar seems weak, ordinary, and incapable or unwilling to plead his case, giving Cassius and the rebels more leeway to sway the audience to its favor.

The conspirators, as portrayed, seem little more admirable than Caesar. It is Shakespeare’s words, not the Lantern cast’s reading of them that set Brutus apart and show that Cassius and Casca are not motivated by the sanctity of Roman democracy alone. The scenes among the conspirators register better than the scenes with Caesar because they are clearer and provide most of the exposition the audience needs to appreciate all of the themes, arguments, and actions of the play. Shakespeare does the bulk of the work. Joe Guzman may convey some intensity as Cassius, but in general, the conspirators are played as too bland, too matter-of-fact, too much as reporters of ideas to be regarded as individuals with dimension or distinct personal traits. Yes, each actor creates a personality for his character, but the creation tends to be outward, a way of moving one’s hands or depicting an attitude. The words spoken could have come from any one of them

The result is you glean the story and the ideas Shakespeare presents in “Julius Caesar,” but you don’t feel you are in a living, thriving Rome, or even Japan, populated by thoughtful, valorous men who see the regrettable need for an extreme but, to their minds, justified act of independence and set it in motion. It’s more as if you are hearing the details of a tale recited by several voices. While some characterization is apparent, it doesn’t define the people who populate Shakespeare’s play. Words and intellectual connections drive the Lantern production more than a sense of drama, the deep, internal portrayal of individual characters, or the flat manner in which the words are spoken until McLenigan takes center stage.

Lantern’s “Julius Caesar” begins with a promise and a warning.

The promise comes from McMahon’s choice to make a great show of Romans in mask, Japanese masks, reveling the streets to celebrate the return to Rome of Julius Caesar following his defeat of Pompey, not a foreign invader but another Roman general and leader who was once loved by Rome’s citizens and lauded in the manner in which the mob is now praising Caesar. Two Senators are unimpressed with the crowd and its sentiments. They remind people how they once adored and paid tribute to Pompey. They also admonish people to go home or to their trades and to stop hanging tributes that praise Caesar. The scene foreshadows the main conflict in the first act of Shakespeare’s play and presages the kind of detail McMahon may use to enhance his production.

The warning comes from the readings Adam Altman and Bradley K. Wrenn give as the tribunes, Marullus and Flavius. Their voices have no strength. Their diction has no crispness. Their accents are as much Philadelphian as they are classical. You get no sense that the actors have thought about the cadences of their speech or the timbre of their voices. They exemplify the flatness that will characterize most of the speeches throughout the production.

The odd thing is both Altman and Wrenn show they are capable of classical speech in late scenes in which they play soldiers fighting for either Brutus or Antony. When I heard their more polished tones, I wondered why they didn’t use their talent while they were playing the tribunes or, to add to my bewilderment, when they were playing critical roles such as the conspirators Cinna and Metellus Cimber. It’s as if they saved their best vocal production for scenes of less consequence than the passages in which Caesar’s assassination is discussed and plotted. Why?

Focal characters fare no better. A lot can be said of the bearing Joe Guzman gives Cassius or of some of the sharp, disdainful, or wary looks the actor gives Cassius’s foes. Guzman is particularly effective in the stare of mistrust he gives Marc Antony immediately after Brutus declares he will brook no opposition, even from Cassius, to Antony speaking at Caesar’s funeral.

In posture, stride, and facial expression, Guzman is every inch Cassius. Of all the conspirators, his jealousies, motives, and feelings are best known because of Guzman’s physical performance. His speech, however, has no rhythm and no power. It’s sing-song in the manner of someone reading or reciting Shakespeare but not of someone who is on stage as flesh-and-blood character who must convince an audience he lives and belongs in the place and time the play is set.

Guzman’s speeches aren’t lost. You know what Cassius is saying and where he stands. But Guzman’s line delivery has no resonance. He has to augment his dialogue with an icy glare or a stance that says, “I will be not be budged.”

Guzman can convey anger and confidence in his step, but his voice remains at one tone and gives no texture or power to Cassius’s many important speeches. Cassius, after all, is the instigator who woos Brutus to the conspirators’ cause and persuades him of its righteousness.

U.R. is even more curious as Brutus.

U.R. is, in general, an amazingly charismatic actor who adds dimension to the characters he plays. He endows characters with authenticity and with an intensity any one working on stage with him must meet or run the risk of fading unnoticed from the audience’s consciousness.

As Brutus, he is strangely benign and smug. On a few occasions, when Brutus is planted in the far stage right corner of Jones’s set, almost in darkness, U.R. appears to be brooding and contemplating how much he really wants to trust his co-conspirators and be in league with them in killing Caesar.

These moments are U.R.’s most powerful. They convey the doubt Brutus feels about whether he and his cohorts are about to do the right thing. Or whether they will be regarded as rebels who slay Caesar but will be just as autocratic if they are put in charge of Rome’s government.

The spell U.R. casts as he holds his own counsel in the stage right shadows is dispelled when he speaks. For some reason, U.R. endows Brutus with a quiet, inexpressive voice. His lines run together and have no distinction, no differentiation. He sounds as if he’s pontificating or being defensive. U.R.’s readings have no register. There’s none of the stentorian tones U.R. musters before he’s identified as Brutus in the opening scene with the tribunes and the Caesar-supporting mob.

Whether delivering Brutus’s funeral oration about not loving Caesar less but Rome more, speaking among conspirators before the assassination, or speaking to his colleagues in Brutus’s battlefield tents near Philippi, U.R. uses a low whisper with a trace of mid-Atlantic accent. There is no motion, let alone emotion, in his readings. They are dull and self-conscious as if U.R. were more in love with his own voice than intent upon conveying a character to the Lantern crowd. The sound is mellow but carries no weight, no sense that Brutus is a man among men and a leader most Romans love, one whose presence among the conspirators gives their murderous act credence and rectitude.

As with Guzman, U.R.’s physical performance has merit,  but his delivery of Shakespeare’s lines is devoid of power or a sign that Brutus is a great and influential man. Brutus is described by Marc Antony, perhaps with sarcasm, as a great orator, yet U.R.’s recitation of Brutus’s funeral speech is effete. It lacks persuasion and the sincerity or magnitude to move an audience. The Roman masses would have turned against this Brutus even if he had the wisdom to have spoken after Antony. There is no dedication, no commitment, no fire in anything U.R. does or says. If I hadn’t seen this actor enough times to recognize him, I’d have thought the Lantern program had a misprint.

Look at the scorecard. Cassius has some presence and makes his opinion and strategy known, but Caesar and Brutus are vacant in the Lantern production. The female characters are little more than ciphers, although Mary Lee Bednarek attempts to give some texture to Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia. Altman, Wrenn, and Matt Tallman as Casca, especially Matt Tallman as Casca, are almost jokes in the way they go about their business. Jered McLenigan would only have to be half as good as he is to win the day and make Antony the focal character in a play that should be Brutus’s.

You understand “Julius Caesar” and the issues it raises when you see the Lantern production, but it hard to enjoy with all the performances that are either half-hearted like U.R.’s or overdone like Tallman’s as Casca.

Tallman is a flouncing Casca. He is more like the town yenta waiting to bring gossip to Mrs. Madrigal’s boarding house in an Armistead Maupin novel than he is a serious Roman who sees and can explain a purpose in killing Julius Caesar.  His voice and readings are the most grating of them all. If I were Brutus or Cassius, I’d have to murder Casca after Tallman’s fifth line before turning my attention to Caesar.

Surprisingly, like Wrenn and Altman, Tallman conveys nobility and speaks beautifully in late scenes when his diction and attitude don’t matter as much. Go figure.

Because it is honest in concept and admirable in terms of clarity, I can’t help but think the Lantern “Julius Caesar” was betrayed by actors who did the minimum or opted to be artistic when they needed to authentic.

All hail to Jered McLenigan. He provided drama and excitement when Marc Antony was stage center and even in occasional scenes in which Antony is on the periphery. Would that the thought that went into McLenigan’s speeches and the true, arresting quality of his voice would be contagious and spread though the rest of McMahon’s cast. Oh, what a Caesar would be behold then!

“Julius Caesar” runs through Sunday, March 16 at Lantern Theater, 10th and Ludlow Streets (between Market and Chestnut), in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. On the weeks of March 3 and 10, “Julius Caesar” will be performed only from Friday through Sunday. Tickets range from $38 to $20 and can be obtained by calling 215-829-0395 or by going online to www.lanterntheater.org.

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