For their twenty-first season, the Harrisburg Shakespeare Company once again undertakes an ambitious production for their annual Free Shakespeare in the Park. Antony and Cleopatra simultaneously follows an epic love story and world-changing political events that shaped the course of history; this production attempts to keep up, with sometimes mixed results.
The production starts off strong: pre-show Middle Eastern-inspired music establishes the mood, while Scenic Designer Ian Potter's set looms inside the Reservoir Park bandshell like the ancient ruins it depicts. However, instead of hovering oppressively over the action, the set is quickly energized by it. Its vibrant colors reflect the vitality of the play's larger-than-life characters. This juxtaposition of life and decay alongside the set's astronomical and geographical impossibilities — the painted suns hanging over both Roman temples and Egyptian pyramids — echoes the many conflicts and self-contradictions that lie at the heart of the play.
The costumes by designer Jen Dasher are similarly brightly colored and likewise suggest the historical setting rather than attempt to recreate it. Some details are quite clever: Enobarbus sports more eyeliner than all the Egyptians combined, reflecting his commander's inclinations and foreshadowing their failure to leave that country for Roman ambitions; Octavian wears royal purple as a nod to his eventual imperial status, while his white-edged cloak echoes the silhouette of a toga even as it reverses its colors. However, while the costumes fit with the overall aesthetic, they do not necessarily differentiate the characters wearing them. The worst victim of this is Cleopatra: while her blue and rust patterned dress is not inappropriate, it reflects neither the character’s near-legendary status as a royal fashion icon nor her considerable personal charisma. Only in her final scene, donning her robe and crown in preparation for death, does she achieve something worthy of her legend. Her brilliant red skirt and patterned tunic echoes her assertion that she has become ‘fire and air’, and her impressively sparkly headdress at last evokes the grandeur most associated with ancient Egypt.
Though Antony and Cleopatra is a good match for the broad, declamatory style favored by the actors, it becomes difficult to see the passions of the title characters as extraordinary when their intensity remains at a consistent high, surrounded by a similarly emphatic supporting cast. Though Philip Wheeler hints at some interesting incongruities with Antony’s physicality — his movements take on the suggestion of feebleness as his fortune declines — overwhelmingly his bombastic Antony begs for some contrast, either to set him apart from the Romans who look askance at his licentious behavior, or merely to distinguish which emotional extremity prompts his reactions. Francesca Amendolia adequately negotiates Cleopatra's rages and ecstasies, but is most notable in her few quieter moments. Her easy physical affection with Charmian (Tara Herweg) and Iras (Miranda Zerbe) reflects a relationship that remains constant despite the vagaries of her temper, and this adds a poignant layer to the quiet dignity of her death scene.
Jeff Luttermoser as Octavian manages to set his character apart by imbuing him with a sense of exasperation — even genuine disappointment — that his fellow friends, Romans, and countrymen are so egregiously failing to live to live up to their responsibilities. Combined with an amusing social awkwardness at the revels of the peace treaty with Pompey (Ian Potter, thirty seconds from a temper tantrum) and a genuine affection for his sister Octavia (Kathryn Miller), Luttermoser’s performance produces a very human Octavian. Thomas Weaver's Enobarbus, meanwhile, has the most clearly defined character arc in the production. Appearing initially as Antony's entertainingly blunt sidekick, Weaver reveals Enobarbus' sweet devotion to Cleopatra and growing disillusionment with Antony's increasingly poor life choices; one only wishes that his evolution did not also end in one of the melodramatic deaths that plague the penultimate act.
Enobarbus' arc is also the focus of some of the better textual editing of the play: after his last scene with Antony, he participates in a shortened version of the night watchmen's discovery of the unearthly music presaging Antony's betrayal by the gods, which spurs his desertion, and he delivers his final soliloquy truly alone. Particularly in its latter acts, Antony and Cleopatra features an unusually high incidence of plot developments relayed by a supporting character after occurring entirely offstage, which potentially disrupt character arcs and could wreak havoc with a production's pacing. Director Karen Ruch partially combats this: in addition to strengthening Enobarbus' portrayal, she concludes the first half of the play with a stylized depiction of the naval battle at Actium, blending traditional Egyptian stick dancing with pantomime. It's an effective and striking adaptation of the text, and one wishes that such ingenuity were applied to similar situations in the latter half of the play, instead of more conventional fight scenes that do little to address the play's uneven pacing.
Though several aspects of the production could have been better executed, no one can deny the thought and creativity put into the whole. The Harrisburg Shakespeare Company's Antony and Cleopatra is an exercise in ambition, embodying the process of striving for some very worthy goals.