Enjoy love and death on the Nile with Antony and Cleopatra
We know how the story of Antony and Cleopatra comes out. Less well known is that dozens of literary greats have had a go at these ancient lovers, whose history is told in historian Plutarch’s Lives. For any writer to make the Roman general and the Egyptian queen his or her own, there have to be new layers of characterization and re-examined motives. William Shakespeare was always up to the task. So delete memories of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in this Syracuse Shakespeare Festival production, now at the New Times Theater inside the State Fairgrounds. The ways of these lovers did not go well, and the Bard sees profound and complex reasons for that.
Although Antony and Cleopatra has great prestige among Shakespeareans, we don’t get many opportunities to see it performed. Indeed, it’s difficult to recall any productions of the work on Central New York floorboards over the last 35 years. Part of the problem is that the thing is so huge, as if the Bard were suffering from incipient Cecil B. DeMille-ism. The original text calls for 34 speaking roles, reduced here to 20 players taking on various parts. Not that we’re missing very much.
Director Jamie Bruno has added three nonspeaking belly dancers, and the entire work runs, with intermission, to three hours and 15 minutes.
Some of Antony and Cleopatra’s high critical esteem comes from the portrayal of Cleopatra, one of Shakespeare’s greatest female roles; she’s a peer of Lady Macbeth, but more controversial. No wonder it has been sought out by top performers for generations, winning laurels for the likes of Vivien Leigh, Peggy Ashcroft, Katharine Cornell, Vanessa Redgrave and, breaking out of type, Lynn Redgrave. Mark Rylance even took on the role in drag. Not surprisingly, then, Alisa Kimbrough in the current production delivers the more compelling performance of the two leads and provokes the most controversy. Is she a witch who gets what she deserves? Or the darling playgirl of the Eastern world?
We never fail to notice that actress Kimbrough is of African-American parentage. This is not nontraditional casting. She’s supposed to be black, although no other Egyptian or member of the cast shares that heritage. During the heyday of Afrocentrism 20 years ago, she was claimed as a black princess, a view that does not survive the scrutiny of Stacy Schiff’s current bestseller, Cleopatra, who ascribes Greek heritage to a queen descended from one of the soldiers who arrived three centuries previous with Alexander. Her name is Greek. Which really doesn’t matter in the play. The role of the youthful queen in George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra (a very different work) is now conventionally performed by a black actress.
Such casting also adds a dimension here.
When we bring in the baggage of U.S. race relations, present in the minds of audience members, Kimbrough’s Cleopatra makes sense as an inviting but forbidden “other,” following in the train of Josephine Baker, Eartha Kitt and Diana Ross. Like most of the Egyptians, she is barefoot, whereas the Romans clomp around in sandals. When she greets Antony, she wraps a bare leg around him. As her passions rise, she circles him with both bare legs.
In contrast, when Antony is called home by Caesar to marry the emperor’s sister, Octavia (Amber Snider, a perfectly attractive young woman who doubles as a belly dancer), we understand without being told why he longs to return to the Nile. The mere fact that this Antony and Cleopatra would not be performed in today’s South Carolina underscores the risk Antony is taking in crossing the line.
The casting also adds to the talents of Kimbrough, previously best known for her associations with Steve Braddock’s Gifford Family Theatre. She’s put her heart and her spleen into this role. And the final scene with the asp is this reviewer’s favorite moment in any Syracuse Shakespeare Festival production yet seen.
Director Bruno’s decision to have Nathan Faudree portray Antony as a reckless swaggerer was just as gutsy as the casting of Cleopatra, but it pays no dividends. True, the Antony of the text bears little resemblance to the subtle, insinuating Marc Antony, who gives the funeral oration in Julius Caesar (1599), written seven or eight years earlier. The action here takes place shortly after the assassination, but in this production Antony seems to have lost his moorings. In the text he’s a smart if cynical guy who seeks adventure, like, say, Eliot Spitzer. In this production Antony feels more like a conventioneer intoxicated by his first sampling of the fleshpots of Las Vegas.
Elsewhere, director Bruno favors action over poetry. This is a wise choice for a community theater audience, where many in the audience have never seen the play before, as opposed to a festival production where finicky aesthetes have just reread the play before coming to the theater. Several scenes are explosive, such as when Cleopatra beats up a hapless messenger (Jesse Navagh) for delivering the wrong news. Several players deliver highly physical performances, starting with Keith Arlington as Lepidus, the soft patsy in the triumvirate ruling Rome. Brian Pringle as Alexas in the Egyptian court looks like a selfimportant popinjay, a possible echo of Pothinus in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra. Meriting a prize for versatility, Tim Morgan morphs from the plump, giggling eunuch Mardian into the vicious, whip-wielding Soldier #2.
Several players strive to honor the verse, such as Patrick Pedro as the smiling ironist Enobarbus, who is in effect the third lead. Appropriately august is Shane Roberie as the character called Caesar, a cool head who is Antony’s adversary. We may know him by that name here, but in history he is more often Octavian or Caesar Augustus. Roberie’s final speech is one of the finest moments in this production. Strong elsewhere are Tony Bersani, one of the best declaimers in the company, in three roles, as well as Bob Reid as the hauntingly effective soothsayer, Sara Caliva as Charmian and Sarah Bradstreet as Iras, Cleopatra’s servants. Add Bob Brophy in three more roles, plus company CEO Ronnie Bell in a late walk-on.
As reported in last season’s Macbeth, the Syracuse Shakespeare Festival has gained immensely from moving inside from Thornden Park to the New Times Theater, allowing for well-handled lighting cues from Meghan Pearson. Costumer Barbara Toman employs yards of leatherette for plausible Roman flak jackets and helmets. And set designer Navroz Dabu establishes exotic Egypt with decorated arches at the viewer’s right, contrasting with stark Roman arches at left, whose marble, when rotated, turns into trees for forest battles.
Antony and Cleopatra is usually classed as both a history play and a tragedy. While they are both willing to pay, Shakespeare is telling us there is a price to be paid for love.
This production runs through Feb. 26. See Times Table for information.