Folger Theatre is transformed dramatically for their production of Antony and Cleopatra, and that dramatic transformation also applies to the play itself. Thus is one of Shakespeare’s denser, layered and difficult late plays largely reborn, stripped of most of the oratory, with the title characters’ self-destructive passion placed front and center. The love affair sizzles, and the play cooks.
This is Shirine Babb’s third time in the role, and it’s evident that she has a firm grasp of Cleopatra’s many layers. She’s a powerful woman who knows how to get her way, she’s survived and outlasted Pompey and Caesar, and treats Antony as her equal. Babb takes a historical icon and makes her human despite Shakespeare’s occasionally chauvinistic and patronizing writing.
Cody Nickell embraces Mark Antony’s headstrong nature. Like the best of Shakespeare’s characters, he plunges fully into every decision he makes regardless of personal consequence, though at this point in his two-play arc, his ability to come out unscathed has started to desert him, and his ambition is not enough to swim through the political sea of sharks, especially now that his attention is torn.
Their relationship is an ongoing and cyclical series of tests, teasings, baiting, challenges, battles, wounds, healing, and reconciling. Babb and Nickell are excellent navigators through the tempests.
And yet it’s Nigel Gore, as Enobarbus, who walks away with the play stuffed under his tunic. Of course it helps that he gets the play’s most famous speech but like few actors I’ve seen, classical or otherwise, he appears to invent his lines spontaneously, living completely in the moment, fully embracing the comic, poetic, and tragic elements of his character’s journey. He’s a strikingly warm, vibrant performer and consequently his character is the one with whom we have the most emotional investment.
Other performers make significant impacts as well: Anthony Michael Martinez’s otherworldly Soothsayer, John Floyd’s witty eunuch Mardian, Nicole King’s double-act as Iras and Octavia, and Dylan Paul’s callow but virtuous and even-keeled Octavius.
Director Robert Richmond keeps the action flowing with fast-paced staging and a lean and smartly cut script. Tony Cisek’s revolving stage keeps the perspective always shifting and characters’ alliances ever in flux. Andrew Griffin’s lighting effectively creates shapes, textures, locations, and moods. Mariah Hale’s costumes evoke the period but have contemporary flair. Joining this team of frequent collaborators is Adam Stamper, with percussion-heavy original music and sound design (a nice touch – the scenes set in Rome have a subtle echo). Together they create a show that has a unified and distinctly contemporary feel.
Antony and Cleopatra
closes November 19, 2017
Details and tickets
I, for one, think the Folger should consider leaving this seating arrangement in place in perpetuity. By swapping the orchestra seating and stage, they create a playing space with incredible intimacy and closeness. The best seats are the front row of the upper level, which now looks directly over the playing space. There are six rows, give or take, on the Folger stage, and even the Juliet balcony is employed for another two rows. They may lose a little in total seating capacity, but the seats are better and the experience is far more intimate, personal and electric.
Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare. Directed by Robert Richmond. Cast: Shirine Babb (Cleopatra), Cody Nickell (Mark Antony), Dylan Paul (Octavius), Nigel Gore (Enobarbus), Robbie Gay (Lepidus), Chris Genebach (Agrippa), Anthony Michael Martinez (Soothsayer/Eros), Nicole King (Iras/Octavia), John Floyd (Mardian), Simoné Elizabeth Bart (Charmian). Set Design: Tony Cisek. Costume Design: Mariah Hale. Lighting Design: Andrew F Griffin. Music Composition and Sound Design: Adam Stamper. Stage Manager: Shayna O’Neill. Produced by Folger Theatre. Review by John Geoffrion
[for the record: Andrew Griffin and I went to Catholic University together, and have worked together on a number of shows]