A middle-aged soldier loses his head over a beautiful slut, betrays his wife, his country and himself while spinning slowly into a libertine's decline. He makes a lot of tactical mistakes as a soldier because he has lost his sense of proportion, all of which eventually leads to his defeat and suicide. Meanwhile, the slut throws a lot of childish tantrums, gets her way most of the time, makes a horrendous tactical mistake of her own and neurotically punishes anyone who annoys or crosses her.

If these two were the subject of a contemporary angst-ridden German film or an American thriller about international corporate power struggles, they would be wholly unsympathetic characters. But Antony and Cleopatra have cultural history on their side, and Shakespeare made them tragic heroes. The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of Antony and Cleopatra has plenty of faults, but in the end it balances our sympathies for the pair with a gutsy grasp of their character flaws.

The best thing about the production is Lynnda Ferguson's bright, layered performance as Cleopatra, the "Serpent of the Nile." She makes Cleo's tantrums naturally hilarious and conceives her as a political strategist one moment and a mindless sex kitten the next. In doing so, Ferguson reminds us how human frailties always have affected history--how petty concerns of powerful but ethically defective persons have lost wars and broken nations. Her Cleo is clearly intelligent and crafty, apparent in those odd moments when she demonstrates some knowledge of statesmanship. But she is so arrogant, so lost in lust that she is blind to all other concerns. And she is just marvelous to watch as she slinks gracefully around the stage like a cat-goddess.

The next best thing about the production: Charles Siebert's rugged Marc Antony. Siebert's performance has moments of such clarity that watching it is a bit like looking through a glass-bottom boat at life under the water. We see the warrior besotted with drink and sexual addiction, losing his mind in a kind of madness of the spirit.

Siebert's Antony is major macho, and director Jack Clay underscores the virility factor in the male-bonding scene that takes place aboard the warship of Pompey, an ambitious warlord. Pompey has threatened Rome's ruling triumvirate, formed by Antony, Octavius Caesar and Lepidus after the death of Julius Caesar. Realizing he can't defeat them after all, Pompey invites all three on board to get drunk and dance. The scene is lively, funny, scary--and as true as the rain that audiences are sometimes doused with in CU's open-air Mary Rippon Theatre.

The worst news about this three-hour production is the Rippon itself. The actors have to shout their lines (you're supposed to adjust to this after a while) and the seats were conceived in purgatory. Added to the physical discomfort is an appalling set meant to suggest the ruins of Egypt and Rome as well as the deck of a ship and various chambers, but really looking like chicken wire adorned with gilded plaster. Thank goodness the costumes are so good you have something visually stimulating enough to keep your mind off the set.

While director Clay is terrific at getting his actors to elicit nuances of meaning from difficult Shakespearean English, he is not as good at moving them around the stage. And he makes odd, even ugly visual choices. Action scenes (battles and political confrontations) are illustrated with flying silken flags. It works once or twice but quickly becomes irritatingly banal. Drill team, anyone?

And as the show comes to a close--Antony is dead, Cleopatra has just asped herself and Caesar enters and promises to have the lovers entombed side by side--a piece of gold lame is dropped behind the dead Cleo. The night I saw the play, the wind blew the lame over Caesar's face. An awesome dramatic moment was utterly destroyed by a piece of cheesy scenery--not a pretty picture.

But despite the limitations of the theater and the scenery, despite a number of flat performances (James Haskins's Caesar and Christine Barley's Octavia come to mind), Antony and Cleopatra is worth the suffering. Ferguson and Siebert make magic together, and smaller roles like Cleo's servant Charmian (Sarah Hartmann) and Antony's first officer Enobarbus (Rick Long) help keep the viewer riveted on all the humanity, intelligence and insight the play has to offer.

Antony and Cleopatra, through August 13 at the Mary Rippon Theatre, CU-Boulder campus, 492-0554.


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