Antony and Cleopatra
nytheatre.com review by Jason Jacobs
April 2, 2008
Like the unruly pair at its center, Shakespeare's Roman epic Antony and Cleopatra needs some reining in. Part globetrotting historical pageant, part love story, both comedic and tragic, it demands two mature, intense actors to embody the larger-than-life lovers, plus a huge supporting cast to populate the play's vast world. It was written shortly after Macbeth, and Theatre For A New Audience's new production highlights some similarities. Both plays focus on power couples whose passions make them rise, crash, and burn. Paralleling the Scottish witches, Shakespeare introduces an Egyptian Soothsayer—an otherworldly presence emphasized by director Darko Tresnjak in this production—to prophesy the hero's impending fall. Macbeth, however, is an intimate chamber play compared to the sweeping panorama of Antony and Cleopatra. This production has fortune on its side and Laila Robins at its helm to help it rise to the challenge.
Set around 40 B.C. and the following decade, the action charts the end of an explosive, destructive love affair between Mark Antony, one of Rome's three Triumvirs, and Cleopatra, alluring queen of Egypt. Antony shares governance of the Roman territories with Octavius Caesar and Lepidus, and Caesar acts on Antony's distraction as an opportunity to gain unilateral control of the empire. The 40+ scenes jump between Rome and Egypt, and after many spats, stand-offs, and battles, Caesar defeats Antony. Rather than surrender, Cleopatra starts a new relationship, this time with a snake.
Cleopatra is one of Shakespeare's most complex female roles, and Laila Robins possesses a powerful presence, striking beauty, and a strong, syrupy voice that holds your attention with every word. She's intensely generous with her fellow actors, passionately engaging each messenger and servant as if he were the most important person in her world. Where the role of Cleopatra lends itself to major diva behavior, even histrionics, Robins's interpretation defies expectations and favors intelligence over flamboyance. Yes, she's expressive and theatrical, but as events bring Cleopatra to her doom, Robins shows us a woman who makes discoveries throughout her greatest crisis. As she loses power, she gains dignity, revealing depth and wisdom in this iconic drama queen.
Cleopatra's opponent Caesar is one very cold fish, and Jeffrey Carlson's take is particularly wormy. Wringing his hands and sniffling, he's a cowardly politician utterly lacking the bravado and physical stamina of Marton Csokas's masculine Antony. Carlson's British accent eerily conjures Laurence Olivier and supports the Victorian setting of the production (more on this below). What's missing are the cunning and razor-sharp intellect that assure Caesar will win the game. It's difficult to believe this man could singularly rule Rome for the next 45 years. Still, with Lisa Velten Smith appropriately simpy as his sister Octavia, the priggish Roman leaders are perfect foils for Cleopatra's allure—it's no wonder Antony prefers to walk with the Egyptians.
As the man caught between these two forces, Antony should have both a warrior's prowess and a lover's ardor. Though Csokas's movie-star presence is, at first, as magnetic as Robins's, his characterization has none of her lucidity. Singing through the text rather than expressing the action of the words, he falls into a lulling vocal rhythm, slurs consonants, and waves his arms in gestures that lack specificity. The performance left me unable to tell if the production has any viewpoint on Mark Antony, and this blurriness is at odds with a production that is otherwise very clear.
Tresnjak and his team reset the play "around 1884," and the program notes work hard to re-contextualize a Roman history play within England's colonization of Africa. While the choice helps costumer designer Linda Cho draw clear distinctions between the rigid Europeans and the sensual Egyptians, it also raises unnecessary complications. Why is the British Empire based in Rome? If the focus is racial colonization, why is Egypt's queen white and why is the Roman/Victorian lieutenant, Enobarbus, black? John Douglas Thompson makes an outstanding Enobarbus, and I wouldn't point to the racial politics of casting if the production didn't insist on a historical context so rife in racial politics.
Aside from this concern, the production is vivid and engaging. Director Tresnjak skillfully marshals his forces, keeping the action flowing swiftly and telling the complex story clearly. The large supporting ensemble does well at representing the generals, soldiers, servants, and attendants—every actor engaging with a strong sense of purpose and high stakes. Voice and text consultants Cicely Berry and Robert Neef Williams assure that, with the exception of Csokas, we understand everyone on stage.
Cho's costumes, especially her gowns for Robins, are lush and illustrious, and lighting designer York Kennedy uses saturated colors to create distinctive atmospheres for Rome and Egypt. Alexander Dodge's open set provides a sense of expanse with moving panels revealing and concealing an upstage corridor, but the large tiled tub down center obstructs more than it contributes. I appreciated Jane Shaw's soundtrack while it stayed simple and indigenous, but found some of the swelling Hollywood-ish music too big.
This is a demanding play that requires a small army and sharp strategy to execute, which is probably why we don't have as many opportunities to see it. And in my view, we have too few opportunities to see Laila Robins star in great roles like Cleopatra. If only to see one of our finest stage actresses keep a date with destiny, consider getting yourself two seats on the Nile.