A Pain in the Asp
I'd like to write one of those judicious "on the one hand this, on the other hand that" reviews of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's Antony and Cleopatra. I'd like to draw attention to sparks of life and ingenuity, fine moments in the major performances and interpretations of the smaller roles that illuminate some corner of the play. But I can't. There's something really mind-deadening about this production. Dunderheaded, cloth-eared and just plain wrong. Toward the end of the play, as the two protagonists, sequentially, take their sweet time dying -- mangling, in the process, some of the most beautiful poetry ever written -- I found myself wriggling on my hard seat, casting surreptitious glances at my watch and wishing they'd hurry up and keel over.
Director Robert Benedetti states in the program notes that he has brought a Hollywood sensibility to the text. He's even penned a little scene between himself and Shakespeare in which he asks for a rewrite to clarify the "A" and the "B" storylines, and Shakespeare responds by saying things like, "I'm relieved we seem to be on the same page" and "Think Fatal Attraction meets All the President's Men." Benedetti also airily told an interviewer that he was not only tightening the play -- a perfectly reasonable thing to do -- but adding a few scenes of his own.
I was worried at the idea of those scenes, but I did figure at least we'd be seeing a swift-flowing, energetic and entertaining production. No such luck. The odd thing was that I had trouble figuring out what had changed. I could see that some characters had been cut, and I did catch a few unfamiliar lines -- a dream of Antony's that I didn't remember from the text, someone saying "We must beware lest we be made a mere dessert." But the sequence of things was pretty much as I remembered it. Benedetti said he had moved Antony and Cleopatra's death scenes closer together, but they're still separated by endless shenanigans. Overall, the plot seemed harder rather than easier to follow. I think this was partly because the actors gabbled and garbled their lines.
Antony has been neglecting his duties in Rome, the unending wars and the rise to power of Octavius Caesar, for love of Cleopatra. He and she are mature lovers, wily and wise and as far removed from the innocence of Romeo and Juliet as imaginable. He's an old warrior. She's slippery, ruthless, impetuous, imperious, petty and magnificent -- his serpent of the old Nile. Their sensual doings in Egypt contrast with the Roman sense of discipline and order. In the field of battle, they are old-fashioned romantics, while Caesar fights ruthlessly, without principle or compunction. What makes the love between Antony and Cleopatra tragic rather than tawdry is the fact that they are larger-than-life characters. Their actions may be foolish, even cowardly, but their love is so great -- and so wonderfully expressed -- that it redeems them. "O thou day o' th' world," he greets her after a victorious battle, and she responds: "Lord of lords!/O infinite virtue, comest thou smiling from/The world's great snare uncaught?"
Be Brave! a Night of Songs Honoring Brenda Worley Billings
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Michael Kevin, who plays Antony, is more professorial than soldierly, however. Kim Staunton's sly humor as Cleopatra sometimes works well, but she, too, lacks the necessary stature. Or perhaps the director has demanded the naturalism with which they play their roles. Unfortunately, it makes the affair seem little more than a neurotic entanglement.
Joel C. Morello's performance as Enobarbus is as close to a bright spot as you get in this production, but his death cries of "O, Antony! O, Antony!" sound ridiculous applied to so diminished an Antony.
The costumes seem to want to express some directorial concept. At one point, Antony wears a professorial cardigan. Octavia, the wife he's married for political reasons, is in a lime-green Jackie Kennedy outfit. Having called for her robe and crown and received the most unflattering outfit imaginable, Cleopatra has to hold the crown in place when she leans over to kiss the dying Antony. The costumes of Cleopatra's women exemplify the chaotic thinking behind this production. Charmian (Cheryl McFarren) looks like a cool young executive; Iras (Rachel Schwartz) is fluffy and feminine. A third, unnamed attendant wears a comic-strip Wonder Woman-style bra and skulks on the edges of the action, apparently keeping watch.
Antony's soldiers -- representatives, remember, of the integrity of a vanishing order -- are dressed like U.S. soldiers. Caesar's warriors look like Mafiosi. Gary S. Grossman plays Lepidus as a dapper, modern-day Middle Eastern diplomat. I'm sure there's some political commentary intended here, but I've no idea what it is.
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