Friends, Romans, countrymen… well, two out of three ain’t bad, as Lantern Theater Company transplants Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar” from ancient Rome to feudal Japan.
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“We wanted to get away from all of the clichés and assumptions about classical Rome, with people walking about in togas and looking like statues from antiquity,” says artistic director Charles McMahon. “Our associations with that make it feel like we’re saying, ‘This is old, this is long in the past.’ But what Shakespeare is saying is not ‘This is Rome,’ but that this is a land long ago and far away with events that feel very current.”
More than four centuries later, the themes of “Julius Caesar” continue to feel current, but McMahon also wanted to avoid the specificity that comes with updating the play to the modern day. “We didn’t want to say this play is like Libya, or this play is like Central America or Russia or North Korea, because that’s not the point either. I think there’s something universal about it.”
McMahon soon realized that the stoicism of Caesar’s Rome had strong philosophical parallels with Japan’s tradition of Zen Buddhism. “The ideas in this play of being detached from the results of actions and being emotionally remote from the events of the world are present in the great samurai epics. So these themes all seemed to add up to feudal Japan being a very resonant scenic and thematic environment to put the play in.”
He then took the idea to scenic designer Meghan Jones, who ran with it, creating a look that incorporates Shoji screen architecture and traditional Japanese warrior clothing, while the sound design draws on Taiko drumming by Philly-based ensemble KyoDaiko. “With the battle scenes that happen in the play, you have to take this serene, well-balanced environment and create scenes of battles on an open field,” Jones explains. “With these design elements, I could take advantage of the Lantern’s intimate theater.”
McMahon and Jones also drew on the films of Akira Kurosawa, who famously transposed “Macbeth” to Japan in his film “Throne of Blood,” but they could also look to current events for inspiration. “Shakespeare wrote this play through an English lens at a time when the ideas of the Renaissance were taking hold in England,” McMahon says. “When he talks about Romans living free, he’s really writing about the English aristocrats of the time who wanted to maintain their rights and privileges rather than cede them to a strong executive. It’s like listening to political discussions nowadays, when people in the Senate talk about the president as if he were attempting to be an absolute monarch and take away their freedoms — nothing has changed.”
'The Tragedy of Julius Caesar'
Feb. 6-March 16
St. Stephens Theater
10th and Ludlow streets