Though Antony and Cleopatra isn’t always considered a problem play, after seeing it at the American Shakespeare Center I can report that it really should be.
Categorizing it as a problem play might be a lazy definition for a work defying easy literary taxonomies, but it does the trick. In ASC’s case (here comes a 413-year-old spoiler), titular characters YOLO-ing themselves into nasty suicides are preceded by pointed zingers, drunken antics, and stage time for a hilarious, snake-handling bumpkin; but the play’s refusal to fit neatly into one genre is amplified in other ways. Take its sword-and-shield action throwdown or constant political wrangling, and you’d swear you’re watching a historical drama; a romance (in our modern sense of the word) bubbles up voyeuristic heart shapes during scenes of a couple who can’t keep their lusty old-world mitts off of each other.
This loose sequel to Julius Caesar (also being performed this season at ASC along with George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra) follows one of the murdered ruler’s three successors, Mark Antony, and his all-consuming affair with Cleopatra, queen of Egypt. The over-simplified plot: the three-men-led Roman Republic is trying to keep it together despite serious friction, while unsurprisingly, Antony’s nights of ass and alcohol aren’t going over well with his associates or followers.
The takeaways of the play are manifold yet murky, and this performance stresses the difficulty of its essential questions: Can true love exist in the absence of lust? Is it impossible to trust anyone deeply in love? Should we permit the lovesick to hold leadership positions? Are promises between business partners worth less than those made to someone with whom we share our bed?
Shakespeare’s still dead, so I attempted to come to my own conclusions. My lessons learned were pretty pedestrian: Don’t mix business with pleasure and try not to lose your mind when you get into a relationship. Don’t quote me, but I’m reasonably certain that few people besides the anonymous medieval morality playwrights and Bertolt Brecht ever said a night at the theater was supposed to be didactic.
But as a vehicle of entertainment, this version of Antony and Cleopatra is quite good.
Director Sharon Ott’s inventive staging choices constantly recast the sumptuous Blackfriars Playhouse stage. Cleverly lit back curtains part to roll out Cleopatra’s satiny bed, revealing her luxurious inner chamber. Later, a long banner of hieroglyphs descends from the ceiling as the Egyptian ruler and her attendants rise from the floor in the august surroundings of her monument hideout. In Roman scenes, soldiers and guards overlook proceedings from the balcony as their colors blanket Caesar’s power hub. Out on Sextus Pompey’s galley, he and his pirates take to the stage stairs to connote the deck, and a few barrels used as seats do a convincing job of hoisting us aboard the Good Ship Pompey.
Surprisingly, for 42 scenes with locations smeared across Alexandria, Rome, and elsewhere, the settings are easy to imagine, which may not always be the case when watching the typically bare stages of Blackfriars.
Credit is due to designer Murell Horton. Steely Roman marital garb provides austere authority, while flowing Egyptian outfits appear in fresh white before being replaced with darkened threads by play’s end; both major warring parties are buoyed and expertly informed by dress without ever crossing the line into exaggerated parody or Halloween costumery.
Maybe it was the Vienna Lager tallboys I bought from the on-stage bartender, but I’m quite sure that the company’s choice of strategically timed music aided in the believability of the play’s constant shifting of place. Ominous drones menace, thudding drums sketch conflict impressions, horns announce, and percussive, opaque melodies slink beckoningly.
Now about the acting. Certain members of the cast can do no wrong. They’re incredibly versatile professionals who are as at home parading as kings as holding their crotches in agony when playing fools. David Anthony Lewis (Agrippa, Philo), Sylvie Davidson (Iras, Octavia), Constance Swain (Charmian), John Harrell (Maecenas, Messenger), David Watson (Lepidus, Schoolmaster), and Ronald Román-Meléndez (Soothsayer, Pompey, and Ventidius) excel in their craft. Their very presence is engaging as they imprint their style upon the play’s poetry without ever getting tripped up by trying too hard—unlike some cloying, tiring cast members who I won’t name outright.
Happily, Zoe Speas (Cleopatra) and Geoffrey Kent (Antony) exhibit a chemistry that drives the pair’s performances to a much higher level than they seemed capable of alone—but which, to be fair, might be too much to sustain throughout their alternating bouts of self-pitying guilt and jealous rage. They’re best eye-locked in fiery desire. But as we all know, these moments—especially with the ancient world at stake—can’t last. Burning passion only creates problems, particularly for critics unsure of what to do with a history-based rom-com ending in tragedy.
See Antony and Cleopatra at the American Shakespeare Center through November 30.