You might be forgiven for wondering how Brave Spirits will pull off a sea battle, given the extremely minimalist aesthetic they’ve assembled for Antony and Cleopatra. The play begins with the beat of a martial drum, and that drum, a few pieces of cloth, and some painted poles are all that accompany the Bard’s words from there on. But, as it turns out, this is all you need – in the hands of good actors, clever designers, and a thoughtful director – to conjure forth the Battle of Actium. If the scene doesn’t go far enough, in the end, to achieve a fully realized effect, it is the kind of deficiency that makes you wish for more of a good thing. Such it is with the whole production.
As the legendary lovers who eventually cause a war between Egypt and Rome so that they can be together, Jessica Lefkow and Joe Carlson are passionate, charismatic, and unrestrained. Layers of insecurity, pride, and lust-for-life bubble up in their portrayals, so it’s an odd thing that this Antony and Cleopatra, more than anything, feels like it is not about them, but about the effect they have upon their world.
Director Charlene V. Smith stages the play with the audience in an intimate circle around the players, allowing them to address their asides directly to our faces, or shake our hands. They have a few elegant carpets to trod upon (Eric McMorris’ design), and various caps and sashes (Melissa Huggins’ costumes) hanging around the room that they use to change characters before our eyes. This gives a close-up and personal touch to even the play’s most politics- and military-focused scenes. Perhaps this setup, which doesn’t privilege Antony and Cleopatra over his lieutenants or her handmaids, is responsible for the egalitarian feeling.
The high quality of performances across the board helps too – in other stagings of this play, everyone whose name is not in the title often ends up being treated like mere props in the power couple’s story. Yet we sympathize with John Stange’s Enobarbus as he struggles with his commander’s failings; with Hilary Kelly’s Iras and Micaela Mannix’s Charmian as they tie their hearts to their mistress; even with Seth Rosenke’s snarky messenger who gets whipped for his message.
Or perhaps this shift of focus comes because, as stated, that there’s not enough of the good things. Carlson and Lefkow are engaging and deeply creative in bringing Shakespeare’s verses to physical life, but they don’t always take their time to really dig in to some of their key scenes. This has the effect of making their romance seem more performative than heartfelt. Whether this was the intended interpretation, it does add to the sense of the play being largely about how their relationship affects others, and how those consequences come back to bite them (so to speak).
Antony and Cleopatra
closes October 1, 2016
Details and tickets
The innovations with those small props and costume pieces, as in the sea battle scene, are lovely and illuminating, but they are infrequent and tend to be rushed as well, as if the company doesn’t have full confidence in these moments. On occasion everyone in the ensemble is guilty of rushing through a verse or two, causing some intricacies of the plot to be lost. All of this may improve as the ensemble finds its groove – particularly given how evidently they trust each other, and how well-drilled their many costume changes are.
It is quite a feat that Smith and company take such a wide-ranging play and turn it into an opportunity for us to spend some time with these characters as they employ these lovely verses to wrestle with a tumultuous world. There are far worse sins for a show than to not give us quite enough of the good stuff. In all, this Antony and Cleopatra continues Brave Spirits’ streak of inventive, accessible, and very humane work.
Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare . Directed by Charlene V. Smith . Featuring Jessica Lefkow, Joe Carlson, Brendan McMahon, Darren Marquardt, Madeline Burrows, John Stange, Hilary Kelly, Anika Harden, Micaela Mannix, Seth Rosenke . Dramaturg: Marshall B. Garrett . Costume Designer: Melissa Huggins . Set Designer: Eric McMorris . Lighting Designer: Jason Aufdem-Brinke . Music Director: Zach Roberts . Fight Choreography/Movement: Joe Carlson . Percussion: Madeline Burrows . Viewpoints Consultant: Jay D. Brock . Stage Manager: Deborah Gur . Produced by Brave Spirits Theatre . Reviewed by Brett Steven Abelman.