shakespeareances.comCaricature of Shakespeare



Antony and Cleopatra

The World Is Their Toy Box

Folger Theatre, Washington, D.C.
Thursday, November 2, 2017, M–3&5 (back row, corner left of stage in the round)
Directed by Robert Richmond

Lepedus, Octavius, and Antony sit on either side of a triangle platform in the middle of the floor, all dressed in leather armor.
The Roman Triumvir, Lepidus (Robbie Gay, left), Octavius Caesar (Dylan Paul center), and Mark Antony (Cody Nickell, right) meet in the Folger Theatre's production of Antony and Cleopatra. Meanwhile in Egypt, below, Cleopatra (Shirine Babb, left) plays with Charmian (Simoné Elizabeth Bart, center) and Mardian (John Floyd, right). Photos by Teresa Wood, Folger Theatre.

Like college courses or even acting classes, Robert Richmond-helmed Shakespeare plays should come with prerequisites for all who attend: They must have read or seen the play at least once. I've seen a dozen stagings of Antony and Cleopatra and have read it at least a half-dozen times, and even I got confused during this Folger Theatre production when Cleopatra starts making out with Octavius as Antony complains about her betrayal. This was around the time the soothsayer, who looks exactly like Antony's servant Eros, places a supernatural rock in Antony's hand that has him seeing visions in a bath of spotlight.

As is his wont, Richmond has taken a William Shakespeare play to places beyond perhaps even Richmond's own comprehension, based on the mixed visual metaphors of his staging and the thematic corners he works his actors into. I don't mind surprises when I'm watching a Shakespeare play, and I am absolutely not against adapting any of his works—heck, my favorite staging of Othello is the Q Brothers' rap version—as long as such adaptations achieve theatrical merit or expand philosophical insights into the plays. With Antony and Cleopatra, Richmond's adaptation results in a mixed bag on both counts. But I do mind when audiences think they are watching Shakespeare and really are not. I've seen the number of hands and hear the comments indicating how many people are seeing a play for the first time. The Folger needs to abide by the concept of truth in advertising, and an adaptation should be billed as such.

Richmond's program notes always cite something along the lines of how he intends to "gain an understanding" of the text and its characters, but the end products certainly aren't Shakespeare's understanding of the plays, and most leave me baffled: As when Antony (Cody Nickell) watches Cleopatra (Shirine Babb) rush into the arms of Octavius Caesar (Dylan Paul) and embrace him with a passionate kiss. No, wait, that's apparently Antony's imagination. Or when Enobarbus (Nigel Gore) dies by standing in the middle of the stage during the last battle between Antony and Octavius as the members of both armies, including those two generals, run Enobarbus through time and time again with their swords. This isn't Shakespeare, who has Enobarbus die in a ditch (his words, which he even speaks in this production) of a broken heart. So this must be one of those visual metaphors Richmond so often uses to impose some enigmatic point on Shakespeare's more lucid, universal explanation.

This may be nitpicking, if you know the play; or you may see genius in the director if you don't know the play. But the Folger, the bulwark of Shakespearean scholarship in America, is looking very dated of late as so many of its productions take conceptualized approaches to Shakespeare, relying on technical enhancements and tired dramatic tropes. So much of the rest of the theater world is moving forward with Shakespeare—and appealing to younger generations—with productions that rely on his words and the spontaneity inherent in his texts rather than theatrial trappings to create the magic of personal discovery.

It is certainly pocket-picking—not of us, the audience (well, kind of) but of the Folger itself. This is the second time Richmond has had the theater reconfigured to an in-the-round space to accommodate a misappropriated thematic purpose that results in poorer sightlines and acoustics for more of the audience. With Richard III in 2014, the director became so entranced by the discovery of the real Richard's buried skeleton that he overhauled Shakespeare's approach to death in that play in order to overhaul the configuration of the theater. For this Antony and Cleopatra, the square play space in the middle of the theater "is a gesture toward intimacy within the all-too-public arena in which the couple circulates," as Folger Dramaturg Michele Osherow writes in her program notes; or it's "almost like a gladiatorial arena," according to Richmond's program notes. I know, I know, it's supposed to be both, an intimate bedroom and a coliseum, metaphorically juxtaposed, but it needs not the cost to the Folger or bother to the audience to temporarily renovate the theater when Richmond already achieves that metaphorical juxtaposition by placing actors, who are not in scenes, on the skirts of the play space (further described below).

The Folger may decide the financial cost is worthwhile, but they need to reconsider the audience's accessibility to the drama. The Folger's Elizabethan Theater simply is not structurally conducive to spurious, temporary in-the-round staging. For this play, our seats were against the wall in a corner, under the balcony with a pillar obstructing our view: we couldn't see whatever Scenic Designer Tony Cisek (truly, a genius in his work) had built as a superstructure above the stage—it must have been important for how often it was lit at key thematic points in the production. We have subscription seats, too, for row F in the middle of the stalls; we certainly didn't sign up for the reconfigured experience we got. After his death, Antony appears to Cleopatra as she "dreamt there was an Emperor Antony" whose "face was as the heavens, and therein stuck a sun and moon which kept their course and lighted the little o'th'earth" and who "bestrid the ocean, his reared arm crested the world." Her Roman captor Dolabella (Robbie Gay) can't see her vision: "Think you there was or might be such a man as this I dreamt of?" she asks him. "Gentle madam, no," he replies. At the time, Antony himself is standing in a spotlight on the balcony during her speech, so about a quarter of the audience shares in Dolabella's inability to see what she sees.

That moment, by the way, is the only time we see sparks between this production's Antony and Cleopatra. Nickell and Babb are absent the chemistry that should anchor a play named after them, but this may have been intentional. "Perhaps Antony and Cleopatra is best known as a love story," Richmond writes, suggesting that is not necessarily so. "Shakespeare begins the play in the tail-spin of the title characters' relationship, allowing us a glimpse of the good times that must have come before." He goes on, in the same paragraph, to give witness to the "distinct emotional connection between the two central characters" and how they "eat, sleep, and breathe their love for each other in a way which in modern times might be viewed as headed for destruction." Nickell and Babb seem to be playing more like the couple of Richmond's initial description, living out their memory of that great lovefest on the river of Cydnus. Cleopatra is always looking for a way to put down the man, and Antony is ever on his guard against ticking her off. "Fie, wrangling queen!" he says when she insists (teasingly?) that he hear the ambassadors from Rome, and as Babb scowls, Nickell's Antony rushes into his next lines—"Whom every thing becomes, to chide, to laugh, to weep; whose every passion fully strives to make itself, in thee, fair and admired!"—as if handing her a Hallmark card ever at the ready.

Antony and Cleopatra, along with Octavius Caesar, are divas, petulant brats. Paul's Octavius stomps and fusses about like a 6-year-old who doesn't want to eat his peas, drink the wine at his party, or let his sister Octavia leave with her new husband. "He calls me [volcanic-building pause] BOY!" he shouts in reporting to Agrippa the contents of Antony's message to him. Octavius lacks any empathy. When he finds Cleopatra dead in the final scene, Paul speaks the play-closing eulogy in a moralistically disparaging tone: "O, noble weakness. She looks like sleep, as she would catch another Antony in her strong toil of grace." I'm not used to this interpretation of the character, but Paul turns in a solid performance as Octavius, and it makes sense that Antony and Cleopatra would end up being defeated by an ego larger than the two of theirs combined.

And those two are completely self-centered in this staging, with Nickell's Antony constantly whining about his situation and Babb's Cleopatra abusing people because she just can't help herself; it's in her nature, and her nature comes at the end of a long line of kings. Babb's Cleopatra has few qualities that merit being the mighty ruler and political savant that she was in history and in Shakespeare's depiction. We even see her ineptitude on full display in the sea battle before she flees with Antony chasing after her (Richmond stages the battles in stylized pageantry, though Shakespeare keeps the battles offstage). This not only is the weakest Cleopatra I ever recall seeing, it is a sexist depiction of this fascinatingly multifaceted character.

In his program notes, Richmond writes that "We have chosen to make the public stories private and the private scenes public." He does this by having rivals (be they the Romans to the Egyptians, Antony to Cleopatra, or Enobarbus to the disintegrating society he's a part of) sitting on Roman benches in the corners of the stage, watching and noting the action. A bed on the stage's revolving platform (I never discerned a reason in general or any thematic points in particular why the central platform revolves) represents Egypt, a land of hookahs, loose-fitting pajamas, Antony and Enobarbus in leather pants (costumes designed by Mariah Hale), and attendants standing in tableaux. By contrast, Rome is a sparse landscape with men in ancient military uniforms speaking as if in an echo chamber. The Egyptians just love to dance, and they do so with swaying sensuality (even Enobarbus); the Romans dance, but it's formally angular like something you'd see in Pylea. Both cultures use a series of hand signals to signify love, devotion, or maybe a suicide squeeze, as it all resembles third base coaches signaling in baseball. Richmond intersperses the opening scenes in Egypt and Rome so that Octavius complains to Agrippa about the reports he's getting from Egypt even as they look on what those reports are describing at the center of the stage.

The production accomplishes a nice visual segue during Enobarbus's barge speech. Gore, who generally works provincial stages and Off-Broadway, is one of America's most accomplished Shakespearean actors, his work ranging from scintillating to mesmerizing, and he accomplishes both with this speech. Even Agrippa (Chris Genebach giving a character-stature-raising portrayal) is left in awe: "Rare Egyptian!" Gore's delivery even withstands the intrusive stage business of one of Richmond's fantasy sequences: When Enobarbus describes Cleopatra approaching Antony in the marketplace, Cleopatra herself sashays in toward Antony in the center of the stage. They embrace while Octavius's sister, Octavia (understudy Acacia Danielson playing the part on the night we attended and giving an accomplished performance) strolls in from the other side and slips between Antony and Cleopatra. It's a lovely visual, though a duplicitous one given that Antony is clearly marrying Octavia as a stalling tactic in his political maneuvering with Octavius.

Then the party begins. We see a brief marriage ceremony, and the company begins the heavy drinking, singing, dancing, and bragging that, in Shakespeare's script, is actually the great bacchanal on Pompey's ship. Here it becomes a wedding reception with the angular dancing Octavia at the center. Pompey and the pirates are among the many textual cuts and scene telescoping that Richmond uses to reduce the character list down from Shakespeare's 36 (plus various attendants, messengers, sentries, guards, soldiers, eunuchs, and servants) to 13 played by a cast of 10. Gay doubles as Lepidus and Dolabella, the whipped messenger, in this staging—and we hear the whipping offstage; Danielson doubles as Octavia and Iras, the novice in Cleopatra's court who's always saying the wrong thing and never seems to earn the queen's favor until the end when she promises to tear out her eyes with her nails rather than watch Egypt give way to Roman triumph; and Anthony Michael Martinez doubles as Soothsayer and Eros, both roles well played but indiscernible in costume and portrayal.

Cleopatra sits up on a bed with blue pillow as Charmian, kneeling on the platform next to her, laughs and Mardian, kneeling to the right, waves a peacock feather fan. Cleopatra is in a shimmering jewleed dress, Charmian in a light blue dress, Mardian in loose-fitting blue shirt and pants.Ironically, two of this production's stronger characters are in Cleopatra's court. John Floyd plays the eunuch Mardian with a sweet aspect, always friendly (even before the play starts, offering ushers and actors grapes from a tray) and even-tempered, whether he's telling Antony that Cleopatra is dead or, after Antony comes up short in his attempted suicide, telling him that Cleopatra is in fact alive. Charmian is this production's greatest revelation in the portrayal by Simoné Elizabeth Bart. She serves the role of chief of staff in the Egyptian court, not only in her capability of facilitating Cleopatra's needs, be it providing her entertainment or asps, but in her personal relationship with the queen. Charmian speaks truth to power, but always respectfully and dutifully, and to the end she proves her utmost loyalty to Cleopatra. It's an interpretation I've never seen before, but it seems quite right.

It also gives this production the only glimmer of redeeming value among any of the characters (though Dolabella shows his noble side when he cuts Cleopatra's tethers behind Octavius's back so that she can "make your best use" of the time she has before she will be taken a captive to Rome). Ultimately, we have a play in which the three key characters, Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavius, are spoiled rich kids playing with the world as their big toy box. They ride roughshod over countries and kings in service to their own whims, they employ their armies, navies, and slaves for their own egocentric purposes, and they are enabled by loyal seconds (Enobarbus, Charmian, and Agrippa, respectively) who, every one of them, should know better. It's a disconcerting feeling we have as we exit the Folger and turn south on East Capitol Street with the United States Capitol right in front of us.

Eric Minton
November 7, 2017

Comment: e-mail

Start a discussion in the Bardroom