Theatre For a New Audience’s Antony and Cleopatra succeeds mostly as visual spectacle. It is truly a sumptuous delight to look at, from the intriguing sliding-panel set replete with an onstage pool, to the lavishly colorful costumes, to the absolutely gorgeous and talented people who populate the play. There’s also some wonderful staging, especially in terms of light and sound design in the battle scenes, as well as the occasional fate-altering supernatural visit from an immortal or two.
Director Darko Tresnjak chooses to set his Antony and Cleopatra not in traditional Ancient Rome and Egypt, but in late 19th century Europe with Britain’s fashion and manners predominating the era. According to the program notes, Tresnjak found a parallel between the exploitation of Africa and its resources by the conquering nations of each period and the resulting “collision of civilizations.” As interesting a perspective that may be, the story is ultimately still about Antony and Cleopatra and why in 2008 we should continue to be intrigued with their relationship. Tresnjak’s well-intentioned concept, while in many ways refreshing, seems a gimmicky surface backdrop that can offer nothing new to the way we look at the play. Plus it feels more much cinematic and remote than theatrical and intimate. But as one audience member put it while in the long intermission line to the ladies room, it sure provides us with plenty of “eye candy.”
Indeed. Alexander Dodge’s set includes a little downstage tiled wading pool with actual water in it that actors step into or wash blood from their hands from time to time. Antony leaves a toy sailing ship in the pool early on that remains through the duration of the play. The toy boat’s significance is anyone’s guess, and it can be a distraction both good and bad, depending on how emotionally involved one is with the scene transpiring on stage.But the paneled scrim backdrop is a feast of iridescent pastel. Fight director Rick Sordelet’s wars are fought behind the panel in slow motion, which is often most effective.
Costume designer Linda Cho puts the Roman soldiers in Victorian period beige uniforms and “Gunga Din” helmets, but dresses his Egyptians in a variety of colors and era styles. Cleopatra is naturally the most romantic looking in a medieval sort of free-flowing burgundy-red gown that she wears for most of the play. The bacchanal, staged by choreographer Peggy Hickey, is truly the highlight of this production, and includes three belly dancers, and a boisterous line dance down and around the aisles of the Duke’s three-quarter stage theatre leading up to an orgy in the making.
The usual complaint about productions of Antony and Cleopatra is the lack of connection and/or chemistry between the actors in the title roles. Unfortunately, that holds true with this production, as well. The love poetry monologues come off as obligatory hurdles to be overcome, and the text is mostly incomprehensible as a result.At the same time, there are many wonderful supporting performances providing much needed damage control in some of the rougher moments. Nonetheless, it’s a very long three hours, and even in my audience of mostly mature adults, there were groans and giggles of “die already” for a well-known ending that is notoriously prolonged.
Alas, Laila Robins’ performance of Cleopatra is mostly unfathomable, at least until the final few scenes that dictate she be more focused and subtle. Make no mistake, Robins has a very intelligent, commanding stage presence. She eventually proves she has a flexible vocal range, and she is quite a beautiful woman. Who, then, does one blame for the fact that her Cleopatra is such a shrill, wildly manic-depressive, overaged brat that it’s just too much of a stretch to make us believe someone like Antony could be so in love with her?
But that is Marton Csokas’s challenge as Antony, and he does his heroic best with it. More often than not, their scenes together don’t work, especially in the sensual displays that are uncomfortable to watch because it’s so obvious they are just displays. For the most part, Tresnjak has his two stars rolling around on the floor together like first-year Strasberg Method students in a movement exercise. Rather than being passionate, they would seem to be playing naughty, shocking the court with public simulations of foreplay and copulation which decidedly lack in true eroticism.
However, New Zealand native Csokas (pronounced Chokash) is immensely watchable when he is in his element and mostly redeems himself, especially in the soldier or political scenes, away from Cleopatra. He’s a fine actor with matinee idol looks and charisma. Interestingly, his monologues have a distinctly Richard Burton-esque feel to them, right down to the rhythm and timbre of his voice. It’s one of several curious reminders throughout this production of the infamous 1963 film debacle that was Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison and Roddy McDowall.
Jeffrey Carlson is just terrific as Octavius Caesar. He’s a dead ringer for a young Sir Derek Jacobi, and even sounds like him in many places, a fact that Carlson grabs and runs with, so we have a nicely ironic I, Claudius reference. Carlson also evokes the same cold, androgynous practicality that the late, great Roddy McDowall brought to Octavius, the only performance in the film that won critical acclaim. John Douglas Thompson makes a wonderful Enobarbus, the carouser/philosopher/soldier who ultimately deserts best friend, Antony, to save his own skin, and then kills himself in shame for his betrayal.
Ryan Quinn is delightful in the “please don’t shoot the messenger” role of Diomedes, the poor soul whose duty it is to inform Cleopatra that Antony has married Caesar’s sister. Quinn also makes a great belly dancer along with Christen Simon and Christine Corpuz (doubling as Charmian and Iras, respectively) in the lively bacchanal.James Knight, doubling as Scarus, should also get a mention for shining in the all-too-brief role of the rebel Pompey, as should Christian Rummel, doubling as Minas, playing a smirking, over-confident Thidias who ends up on the wrong side of a flogging post.
Tresnjak’s directorial parallel concept of Antony and Cleopatra is not particularly emotionally engaging Shakespeare, but it does succeed as a visual spectacle with the help of a fine supporting cast.