In junior high school we all wondered what the hell all this had to do with us. An insightful production can begin to answer this question.

Julius Caesar

Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival at Allentown College, Labuda Center for the Performing Arts, 2755 Station Ave., Center Valley, through July 12, (610) 282-WILL.

You all know the plot. (For reasons unknown -- perhaps because there's very little humor and even less sex -- Julius Caesar is the first Shakespeare we're all forced to read in junior high school.) The idealistic Brutus and the envious Cassius, fearing that Caesar will turn their patrician republic into a dictatorship, conspire to assassinate him; after Caesar's protege Mark Antony wows the citizens in a funeral oration, the conspirators are forced to flee Rome; losing the civil war to the military junta formed by Antony, they kill themselves.

In junior high school we all wondered what the hell all this had to do with us. An insightful production can begin to answer this question.

Not so artistic director Gerard J. Schubert's production for his Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, which is aggressively low-concept. He writes in his program note that the production is "a play in its time, the production unencumbered by interpretations or parallels, the cynicism of distance, or the skepticism of a personal agenda."

What this means is that the play is staged in period -- Rome, that is, not Shakespeare's England (though the play was probably originally performed in what was then modern dress). The Festival's imitation-Stratford-Ontario unit stage is embellished (by William Neuert) with asymmetrical cornices, cream-colored fluted columns and Corinthian capitals. The costumes (by Deborah Rooney) feature lots of sandals and bare shins, with togas in the first half of the play and bronze breastplates and horsehair-crested helmets in the second half. And the stage is crammed full of soldiers and citizens, played by undergraduate Festival interns.

The crowds really cook in the funeral oration scene, under the sway of Richard Thompson's charismatic Mark Antony (which almost makes up for all the "Caesar, Caesar" crowd murmurings in the cheesy processional scenes earlier on). And they're all truly terrifying when they've turned into a mob attacking a poor poet whom they choose to mistake for one of the conspirators, with violence wonderfully choreographed by Patrick Mulcahy (which almost makes up for the clumsy and unconvincing violence of the assassination).

I don't, on principle, mind low-concept productions, especially if they leave room for truly masterful or insightful acting. But Edwin C. Owens shows us little more about Caesar than his vanity. Mark LaMura shows us little more about Cassius than his bitterness (he cuts a terrifying figure when he stands bareheaded in a thunderstorm with his sword drawn, though in a production so fixated with period realism, you'd think he'd get just a little wet). And Terry Layman's acting as Marcus Brutus tells us little about why he does what he does, why he makes the stupid decisions he makes, and why he's so stoic about it all by the time he turns his sword to his own entrails. (Poor Grace Gonglewski, who is marvelous as his wife Portia, might as well be acting with a marshmallow.)

With the acting as it is, this Julius Caesar, for all its period appointments, tells us little about Roman times, little about Shakespeare's times, and even less about our own. We might as well be reading it in junior high school.

-- Cary M. Mazer