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Antony and Cleopatra
By Elyse Sommer
A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Directing and starring in a play is always a challenge that begs accusations of hubris. This is even more true when the play is one of Shakespeare's most difficult to produce tragedies, Antony and Cleopatra. Vanessa Redgrave has not only undertaken this daunting task but given it a "bold new" political-historical interpretation as #35 in the Papp's Shakespeare Marathon. In the process she has completely shelved the fiery Cleopatra of her "salad days." Her daring brings to mind one of the play's most famous lines by Antony's friend Enorbarbus: "Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety . . ."
Given the current penchant for Shakespeare à la anything except "straight" Shakespeare, --(i.e., the movie Richard III with Sir Ian McKellen as a Hitler-style Richard , the Blue Light Theater Company's recent Gentleman of Verona with Salsa, or the Papp Theater's two-part production of Henry the Sixth-- Ms. Redgrave's take on Cleopatra as a Renaissance leader modeled after Elizabeth I and a Michelangelo-like Antony, isn't even that far out. An interview in the StagebillPublic's as always informative program notes, gives her reasoning that "you cannot make sense of Cleopatra unless you see her as a late Renaissance leader who is a woman" an intriguing stamp of authority. And, if variety were the yardstick for the success of this production, it would be an unqualified winner, if only for its multi-culturally diverse, gender bending casting and the many comic touches. No, that "comic" isn't a typo; this a production that seems to be played for laughs as much as for tragedy.
But, as the show biz phrase goes...on with the show. How does it all play? Does Ms. Redgrave live up to her formidable reputation as an actress?
As this very Elizabethan Cleopatra, Redgrave manages to glow even though the name "Egypt" is more than a little ludicrous. The opposites attract pull is still there thanks to an impressive Antony as portrayed by David Harewood, (black and at least 20 years Redgrave's junior).
Enobarbus' Act 2, scene 2 description of their first meeting when "she did lie in her pavilion, cloth of gold of tissues" is effectively translated into the magnificently acted and staged death scenes. The image of Cleopatra seated, ready to enter Paradise where she and Antony who lies dead at her feet, will be reunited leaves a deep impression.
Overall, the production will thrill only diehard Redgrave fans and those willing to accept Antony and Cleopatra with history skewered as Ms. Redgrave sees it. This version is hardly the story of a man so besotted by the wily and exotic "serpent of the Nile" that "the itch of his affection. . .Have nick'd his captainship." Fetchingly attired (by Ann Hould-Ward), first in jodphurs and later in big-brimmed hats and ruff-collared dresses her "infinite variety" ranges from boyish charm, to woman-in-love-with love and amusingly insecure Other Woman--never mysterious and imposing monarch/temptress.
The rest of the cast is good. Alex Allen Morris is an endearing Enorbarus. Don Campbell does the best he can with an extraneously added character-- a sneakered, shabbily dressed veteran who hangs around the edges of the play like a resident homeless person. Carrie Preston is a boyish Octavius Caesar in a gender reversal that combines political correctness with a twist on the custom of having boy actors play female roles in Shakespeare's day. Her line delivery is gratifyingly clear. Unfortunately, her Caesar comes off more like a Protestant Joan of Arc than an important member of a powerful triumvirate; nor are her/his very un-Shakespearean oratories helped by campy touches like aides hoisting video cameras, microphones, and other modern-day accoutrements. There are other bits of now business throughout the play, but none quite as wrong-headed as this video stuff. The other supporting players, several holdovers from previous Papp Shakespeare productions, are fine, even though the variety of their accents does not always make for uniform clarity. I overheard several intermission remarks of "I understood about every third word."
The staging, like the last Papp production of Henry the Sixth utilizes every corner and cranny of the Anspacher theater for entrances, exits and small scenes. To add to the sense of a total environment, there are gymnastic ladders and wooden ladders. John Arnone, the set designer, has also covered one wall with a painted Venus and scattered weighty Latin tomes all over the main stage. On the side walls, graffiti is scrawled on top of the royal crests (maybe by the homeless-man-messenger?). The total effect is on the messy side.
Does all this add up to a truly "bold, new" Antony and Cleopatra? Well, it's certainly different and never boring. It also proves that new is not necessarily better. I left hoping that Kenneth Branagh is planning his own bold, new and, as always completely true to the original, Antony and Cleopatra.
Anthony and Cleopatra is #35 in the Papp's Shakespeare marathon. It closes on March 30th so you don't have much time to check your opinion against ours.