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Antony and Cleopatra

A World's Pool of Humanity;
A Whirlpool of Passion

Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, Ellicott City, Md.
Saturday, June 8, 2013, Third rowish, four seats in from the left
Directed by Ralph Alan Cohen

Cleopatra in long red gown is led in a dance by Antony in white fedora and casual white jacket with the Egyptian court lounging on the stage's wood steps in the background, the Institute's stone walls behind.
Cleopatra (Isabelle Anderson) and Antony (Matt Radford Davies) romance each other in the Egyptian court in the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's production of Antony and Cleopatra. Photo by Lesley Malin, Chesapeake Shakespeare Company.

William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra is a sprawling play: in its geography, covering the entire eastern half of the Mediterranean Sea and into Mesopotamia, and in its humanity, with 35 named speaking parts and countless messengers, soldiers, servants, and eunuchs. The ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute in Ellicott City, where the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company stages its outdoor productions, is a sprawling space, with a stage stretching from the wall of one wing of the hollowed-out institute to the wall of another wing while the audience stretches out in lawn chairs in front.

Director Ralph Alan Cohen loves the play's sprawl and makes the most of the space. Octavius Caesar and members of his faction pop up on the ramp at the far end of one wing to speak the half-dozen lines in the umpteenth scene of Act Three or Four, then depart as Mark Antony and members of his faction pop up at the far end of the opposite wing to speak the half-dozen lines of Scene Upteenth-next. Cleopatra's monument, where she takes refuge after Octavius' ultimate victory, is a window in the institute's wall.

More importantly, though, Cohen focuses on the details of this play, minute observations that reveal the intimately personal struggles among enemies, friends, and lovers searing through Antony and Cleopatra. Yes, it's a play of larger-than-life people named Antony, Cleopatra, and Caesar (two of them, really, so often is Julius reminisced upon), but Shakespeare's play really deals with larger-than-life emotions. Lovers occasionally hate each other, enemies occasionally love each other, and the dearest of friends may irretrievably break their bonds but allow their former affections for each other to continue holding true.

A particularly riveting scene is Act Two, Scene Two, when Antony (Matt Radford Davies) and Octavius (Patrick Kilpatrick) finally meet in a summit in Rome presided over by the third triumvir Lepidus (Dave Tabish). Their meeting starts tersely with Caesar's "Welcome to Rome"; "Thank you;" "Sit"; "Sit, sir"; "Nay then"—and the two take their seats, monitoring whose butt makes first contact with his seat's cushion. Kilpatrick's demeanor as Octavius is stiffly intense; Davies' Antony coils in a cautionary aspect. Octavius presses his complaints, most of which are the kind of unfactual spin we hear between Republicans and Democrats all the time. Antony casually dismisses the lesser of these and, on the more serious accusation of treason, offers a tempered apology not for breaking his oath but for neglecting it. This leads to Octavius' officer Agrippa proposing the marriage of Antony to Octavius' sister, Octavia. The manner of Kilpatrick's speaking Octavius's line "Yet if I knew what hoop should hold us staunch, from edge to edge o'th'world I would pursue it" suggests he is giving Agrippa his cue to propose the marriage. As Agrippa lays out the proposal, Kilpatrick's Octavius stares steadfastly at Antony, closely monitoring every millimeter of movement in the face of Cleopatra's self-professed lover. It's a study Octavius doesn't relinquish even after Antony agrees to the marriage—even in their later scene together after the wedding has concluded.

If you want to know the real truths of these characters, see them drunk. The great party scene on Pompey's barge uses alcohol to lay bare all personalities and allow us to read their fortunes as well as any soothsayer could. Lepidus is the silly fool when he's drunk; when sober he is too stupid to fend off Caesar's ultimate double-cross in unseating him. Pompey is the effusive host when he's drunk; when sober he's too honorable to head off Caesar's ultimate duplicity in defeating him. Caesar is the egotistical jerk when he's drunk; when sober he's too egomaniacal to do anything less than rule the known world. And Antony? Well, his behavior on the barge is no different than it is in any other scene, suggesting that he is always drunk.

If so, Davies plays him as a functioning alcoholic. His Antony is ever peremptory, so intent on living life to the fullest that he impatiently gets on with the moment at hand so he can move to the next. Such an Antony could never brook the religiously dull Octavia (Jenny Leopold) for a wife. Instead, he willingly lets himself be wrapped around the little finger of the bedeviling queen of Egypt, embracing both his frustration and infatuation with her—sometimes simultaneously—so addicted is Antony to emotional stimuli. It's no wonder he gets so much wrong, from choosing to fight Caesar at sea not once but twice to, with his dying breath, putting Cleopatra's trust in the wrong officer among Octavius's company.

I have seen Alan Howard (opposite Glenda Jackson), Timothy Dalton (opposite Vanessa Redgrave), and Anthony Hopkins (opposite Judi Dench) as Antony, and Davies is a great Antony who rises to my recollection of those others. He comes to the part with such clarity and maintains an intellectual energy from beginning to end of this grueling part that every single line he delivers sparkles, even when he's speaking about some obtuse event in a locale that is nothing but numbness in our comprehension. In fact, I've not seen an Antony not die better than Davies. His failure at cleanly committing suicide after hearing that Cleopatra has killed herself is Antony's most tragic moment. Yet Davies delivers both the tragedy and the macabre humor of a man who ultimately utterly fails at everything, even killing himself ("How, not dead? Not dead?") and then futilely pleads with his guards to finish the job. He watches in helpless bewilderment as one of them runs off with the sword to show Octavius. When he hears that Cleopatra really is not dead but was only fooling him, so many emotions cross Davies' face at this moment, and despite the cruel state Antony is in, the audience can't help laughing—and neither can Antony. Davies reveals in this moment Antony's all-consuming infatuation with the queen as he laughs admiringly at her cunning ways even as he gnashes at the insufferable pain of a sword thrust through his chest.

Just how cunning Cleopatra is lies in the eyes of the beholder as much as in the performance of the actress. Isabelle Anderson is a Cleopatra who totally dominates the stage when she's on it. Anderson moves as lyrically as she speaks, and costume designer Marilyn Johnson dresses her in a long, sumptuously red gown and later a shimmering gold-swirls-on-pink gown that emphasize both the queen's royal lineage and the woman's alluring curves. This is a woman who can make stateliness seductive. Anderson gives a reading that is textually pure, and while that reveals a lot of humor in the role, it unfortunately can leave us with a Cleopatra who is confusingly inconsistent. The character Anderson portrays could be diagnosed as bipolar, and even in the moments of heightened crisis, she's playing manipulative head games—not only with Antony, but with herself, too. There's something fetchingly funny in the way Anderson sends word to Antony that she has killed herself—"Say that the last I spoke was 'Antony,' and word it, prithee, piteously"—but there's something disturbing in the way she renders to Octavius a girlish weakness, even though she knows "He words me."

While this play's three leading characters are larger than life, Shakespeare went to great lengths to make everybody in this play, even "the messenger" and "the captain" and "the clown," as big as life. He makes a point of naming characters in conversation even if that character appears for a few lines in a single scene. In this way Shakespeare peoples his sprawling world with individuals, not types. If his own troupe numbered no more than a dozen or even a couple dozen members, he had to double and triple parts, and so rapid is the multitudinous characters' coming and going that it ironically blurs their individuality in the audience's minds into types. Such is life.

Cohen's cast, though, has some in it who raise these individuals to a notable presence. Eric Humphries, in fact, matches in each of his four parts the work of Davies, Anderson, and Kilpatrick in their single parts:

  • He is the Soothsayer: even before Antony finishes asking him whose fortunes will rise higher, his or Caesar's, Humphries barks "Caesar's."
  • He is Pompey: so commanding is his bearing that even Antony finds himself in awestruck uncertainty when he's in his presence.
  • He is the messenger who takes a beating from Cleopatra when he reports of Antony's marriage to Octavia and later, with the behind-her-back coaching of Cleopatra's women, offers "certain" descriptions of Octavia to the queen: Cleopatra had given him a bracelet of gold early in their first scene together, and at the end Humphries poignantly and privately places the bracelet on the ground as he slinks away from Cleopatra's displeasure.
  • He is Dolabella, sent by Octavius to guard Cleopatra: his compassion for her and his subtle assistance to the distrusting queen is so genuine it seems to firm her resolve to truly commit suicide more than does the thought of meeting Antony in death.

Mark Antony (Matt Radford Davies, right) talks with his new wife Octavia (Jenny Leopold) as her brother and Antony's political rival, Octavius Caesar (Patrick Kilpatrick) watches closely in the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's production of Antony and Cleopatra. Photo by Teresa Castracane, Chesapeake Shakespeare Company.

Jeff Keogh and Dave Gamble are staunch soldiers as, respectively, Agrippa and Maecenas in Octavius's army and are equally stalwart as Philo and Scarus, respectively, in Antony's. Vince Eisenson is an earnestly loyal Menas to Pompey and a fatally loyal Eros to Antony. Lizzi Albert stands out as an Egyptian attendant and a soldier in both armies. Leopold, in addition to playing the stoically mild Octavia, is the menacing pirate Menecrates serving Pompey and Antony's soldier Dercetus who runs off to Octavius with his sword as Antony lies not dead yet.

All of this comes off with appropriate confusion. The costuming, however, is inexplicable confusion. Cohen has given this Antony and Cleopatra a vaguely Caribbean setting (songs from Disney's The Little Mermaid comprise the preshow music), a thematic setting that is incomplete in execution. The Egyptians, save for Cleopatra and her women, wear Bermuda shorts and Jamaican shirts, and the Romans are in late 20th century British colonial Army uniforms with camouflaged bullet-proof vests as their armor and different color sashes indicating their allegiances. As sharp as Johnson was in costuming Cleopatra, she didn't pay close attention to the echelons of rank on the soldiers' sleeves as some of the common soldiers clearly outrank their officers (this could be a thematic point, as the common soldiers have more strategic sense than do generals Antony and Cleopatra).

While the thematic setting seems incomplete, the costuming and setting really don't matter. This is a play encompassing the known world of its time and the timeless spectrum of human emotions. It is the sprawling stage set against a ruined institute and the acting company that establishes the play's sprawling geography, population, and passions.

Eric Minton
June 10, 2013

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