Antony and Cleopatra is Shakespeare’s saga of love and war, in which — spoiler alert — war wins.
Our situation is this: Julius Caesar has been assassinated and, after some skirmishing, the silver-tongued Marc Antony, along with Caesar’s deputy Lepidus and Caesar’s great-nephew Octavius, now rule Rome as a triumvirate. Antony is on a mission to pacify Egypt, but he has laid it aside in order to dally with the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra. In the meantime, Antony’s brother and wife have plotted against the remaining members of the triumvirate, unsuccessfully.
Cleopatra is a woman of astonishing sexual power. She has already ensnared Julius, having a son by him. For Marc Antony she becomes the Alpha and Omega. He abandons his nation, his mission, two wives and finally his senses (he commits two colossal errors on the battlefield, basically out of love-lorness) for her.
The problem is that she doesn’t come off that way in Shakespeare’s text. Instead, she is an untamed shrew, impossibly vain, imperious, childish, cruel, and so adverse to believing bad news that she becomes delusional. No reasonable person would want to be long in her company, even if she looks like Elizabeth Taylor, as she does in the movie. Given this, the mighty Antony seems like a buffoon, a sap, an incompetent, and our sympathies lie with Octavius, who sets things to rights. The (spoiler alert) double suicide that concludes the story does not move us, except perhaps to relief, in that these two imbeciles will finally stop talking.
So how does a producing company confront this dilemma? The American Shakespeare Center, known for its savvy and imaginative presentations of the Bard’s work, proposes that it is not just Cleopatra but Egypt itself which feeds Antony’s lust — and would feed the lust of most men, arriving in a strange place after an extended march and forced period of abstinence.
Thus in director Sharon Ott’s staging, Cleopatra (Zoe Speas) and Antony (Geoffrey Kent) are rolled in front of us on a gold-embroidered bed, declaiming elaborate endearments after having made the beast with two backs. Attendants and deputies come and go. The Queen and her consort don’t care; they have more important things on their minds. They pant and laugh together until they are ready to address the day’s issues. That’s when Antony learns that his wife is dead.
Though our couple are now uncoupled, the court still bubbles with sexuality. Cleopatra’s attendants, barefoot, scantily-clad or both, giggle and touch each other. Even the court eunuch (Brandon Carter), slithers with sex. When Enobarbus (Chris Johnston), Antony’s chief lieutenant, saunters onstage to speak with him, a beautiful woman hangs on his shoulders. An ill-tempered soothsayer (Ronald Román-Meléndez), full of dark and enigmatic predictions, cannot disturb the frothy mood.
Ott matches this libidinous Egyptian court with an exceptionally dour Roman one, led by the glowering super-bureaucrat Octavius (Michael Manocchio). The business of Rome is war, and as Manocchio plays him, no one is more suited to lead in this grim environment than Octavius. His immediate need is to put down a rebellion helmed by Pompey (Román-Meléndez), the son of a Caesar rival who had been killed by Cleopatra’s father. To this end, Octavius recalls Antony to Rome, to lead the army into combat with the rebel. But first, the two rulers need to square things between themselves, in light of the plotting done by Antony’s wife and brother. They do, and cement the alliance by marrying Antony to Octavius’ sister, the dutiful Octavia (Sylvie Davidson). Octavia is sort of the anti-Cleopatra: sober, studious, obedient. You know instantly that Antony will be done with her as soon as he leaves town.
All this is in the text, of course; 21st-century directors, unlike their 19th-century counterparts, are not in the habit of adding scenes or even dialogue to Shakespeare’s play. But Ott and the company do the play, and the audience, the great favor of judicious cutting. Antony and Cleopatra is a somewhat windy play; it is twelve scenes longer than anything else he wrote, as American Shakespeare Center co-founder Dr. Ralph Cohen points out in his program notes. There is powerful language in it, but perhaps too much of it. The American Shakespeare Theater solves this problem. Its production clocks in at two and a half hours, including an intermission.
Antony and Cleopatra closes November 30, 2019 at American Shakespeare Center.
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This cutting adds to clarity. In the ASC production, we learn that Antony’s wife has died within five minutes of the production’s opening; in Shakespeare’s text, we don’t know it until the third scene. This is a production which gets to the point, right quick. Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, and Antony, co-ruler of Rome, are in a loving, deeply-sexual relationship when the other rulers call Antony home. After settling suspicions about his loyalty by marrying Octavius’ sister, Antony marches to confront Pompey and there negotiates a settlement with him. Having done there, he returns — against orders — to Egypt, and Cleopatra’s bed.
This is sufficient pretext for Octavian, whose ambition is a ferocious engine. He has already turned against Pompey, breaching the agreement Antony negotiated, and imprisoned Lepidus. Now he marches on Antony. Antony confronts the Roman fleet with Egypt’s inadequate navy, with disastrous results, and he compounds his error by following Cleopatra’s boat back to Egypt during the heat of battle. Some of his soldiers desert and join Octavius; he loses a battle and — well, you know the rest of the story.
American Shakespeare Center spins this story out with perfect lucidity, thus allowing us to focus on the play’s main thrust without having to keep track of superfluous characters and plot developments. The company takes advantage of this lucidity with nuanced, thoughtful and powerful performances, particularly in the principal roles. Speas’ Cleopatra appears younger than most of the actors I’ve seen in this role, and that allows her to give the Egyptian monarch a playful aspect. Cleopatra says some horrible things, but as Speas plays her, she is less the dread autocrat than a woman-child in the throes of romantic frustration. Even in the scene where she berates and threatens the terrified messenger who brings her news about Antony’s marriage to Octavia (John Harrell is fabulous in this scene) we feel as though nothing terrible is going to happen, and so are able to enjoy the comedy of the scene.
The way Speas plays Cleopatra allows Kent to give us Antony in full. Kent’s Antony is neither a swaggering conqueror nor a henpecked sap. He is a man in love. His ambition is not his friend at this point. It got him as far as Cleopatra’s bed, and his best destiny is to retire there. When Euphronius (uncredited here) tells Octavian that Antony, defeated, “requires to life in Egypt,” or if not, as a commoner in Athens, we get a glimpse of Antony as he wants to be. Antony rages and swaggers in turn, but he is most committed as a swain. Kent lets us know him in full detail.
And Manocchio as Octavius is his perfect counterpart: disciplined, humorless, his personality honed to a single purpose: to acquire power, and keep it. The text refers repeatedly to Octavius’ youth, but he was actually 32 when he defeated Antony at the Battle of Actium, and Manocchio projects at about that age. He is not rageful; he angers, but at a controlled pace. Even when his whole party revels with Pompey to celebrate their peace agreement, you can see Manocchio’s Octavius standing aside, eyes taking everything in, calculating. As Manocchio has set him up, we understand that his seeming compassion toward Cleopatra is nothing more than calculated flattery.
The singleness of purpose marks the work of the supporting players. David Watson makes Lepidus a draft horse among thoroughbreds; you can see him laboring to keep up with the other two members of the triumvirate. He offers his generally sensible suggestions tentatively, as if he is not wholly convinced that he is capable of a good idea. His drunk scene in the post-treaty party — a meaty bit for any Lepidus — is very well done, but he treats us to something we don’t always see: a hung-over scene immediately following. When we learn that Octavius has turned against him, it seems sad, and inevitable.
Román-Meléndez too, in his relatively brief appearance as Pompey, paints an indelible picture. He presents a competent man, driven by ambition but not craven to it, who is capable of admiring the skills of his enemies. His honesty shines through; when his number two, Menas (Carter) points out that while everyone celebrates the peace treaty Pompey is in a position to wipe out the triumvirate, Pompey reacts angrily, as any good person should. We root to him, thanks in part to Román-Meléndez’s straightforward performance, until Octavius eventually gives it to him in the neck.
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On the Egyptian side, Constance Swain and Sylvie Davidson, as Cleopatra’s two attendants Charmian and Iras, imbue her Court with a sort of innocence. Though erotically charged, this Egypt is closer to the Garden of Eden than to Hedonism II. The sexuality of the Egyptian court is not naughty because its inhabitants know neither prohibition nor inhibition. Swain and Davidson play their roles so sweetly that it is impossible to imagine the place to be a den of sin, as another approach to the play might have it. You can easily understand how Antony would seek his rest there after spending time in the relentless labyrinth of Roman politics.
The clarity of the characterization, and of the presentation, has significant benefits for the viewer. For the first time — and I’ve seen this play three or four times — I fully understood the importance of the warning about Octavius which Dolabella (Leighton Brown, good in this) gives to Cleopatra toward the end of the play (“I tell you this: Caesar through Syria/Intends his journey; and within three days/You with your children will he send before.”) It’s always been there, but Ott’s uncluttered presentation brings clarity to this scene, too. It makes Cleopatra’s ultimate decision, which had always struck me as a final act of self-dramatization, instead make sense.
Ralph Cohen co-founded the American Shakespeare Center (originally called Shenandoah Shakespeare) with the purpose of allowing contemporary audiences to derive the same pleasure out of the Bard’s works that his original audiences did. By bringing the core of this play to the fore and allowing her actors to fully commit to who their characters are, Sharon Ott has discharged this purpose with honor.
Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare, directed by Sharon Ott, choreographed by Nancy Anderson, who is also the vocal coach . Featuring Zoe Speas, Constance Swain, Sylvie Davidson, Brandon Carter, Annabelle Rollison, Alexandra Stroud, Ronald Román-Meléndez, Chris Johnston, David Watson, Geoffrey Kent, who is also the fight captain, Michael Manocchio, Leighton Brown, David Anthony Lewis and John Harrell . Costume design by Murell Horton . Stage manager: Sarah Dale Lewis, assisted by Adrienne Johnson Butler . Produced by American Shakespeare Center . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.
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