Thursday, July 23, 2009

Review of Anthony and Cleopatra at Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival

First published in EDGE Philadelphia:

The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s Anthony and Cleopatra offers a unique opportunity in the Bard’s body of work, one that goes beyond the rare staging of his mammoth locale-jumping epic. Except for his “history plays,” Shakespeare—unlike Agatha Christie and her famed inspector Poirot—didn’t serialize his characters.

Instead, he either ended their lives or married them off into banality (thereby ending their fascination), denying audiences the chance to see their favorite roles tread the boards in new adventures.

And therein lies part of the fascination with Anthony and Cleopatra. When audiences last saw Marc Anthony (here played by a very robust-looking Greg Wood), he towered as the boyish hero of Julius Caesar. Much like Prince Hal from Henry the IV, Anthony’s arduous circumstances forced him to grow up quick.

But unlike young Hal, who matures into the courageous military genius that storms the field in Henry V’s Battle of Agincourt (delivering no less a monumental speech as "Band of Brothers"), Anthony devolves from the young hero avenging his mentor’s death into the henpecked whipping boy of an aging Queen Cleopatra (Lauren Lovett).

Seduced by her beauty, Anthony neglects his duties, falters from one military blunder to the next, and grants concessions to maintain his fragile political alliance with Octavius (Jacob R. Dresch) and Lepidus (played with terrific subtlety by Wayne S. Turney). With each mistake, his confidence erodes further and he crawls back to Cleopatra in desperation.

But after watching PSF’s production, I couldn’t help but wonder why. The fault doesn’t lie with Wood’s effortless transitions. In Alexandria, he lolls about the stage, either desperately begging favors from Cleo, or wasting the nights in revelry. In Rome, he exudes masculinity and confidence, and before battle, his fury cracks the stage like a whip. Only Steve TenEyck’s lighting fails to cohere with the shifts in attitude across atmospheres. Why paint the fiery passionate realm of Alexandria in white tones and Rome’s calculating world of men in red?

Under Patrick Mulcahy’s crisp direction, the supporting cast plays solidly off Wood’s lead. Dresch’s delivers the evening’s best performance, appearing commanding while simultaneously blending a young leader’s insecure need for haughty distance with childish petulance (I could easily imagine Dresch’s Octavius maturing into Augustus, the dictator that ushered forth the Pax Romana). As Enobarbus, Tony Lawton fashions his own mini-tragedy out of a soldier’s betrayal and regret.

And then there’s Cleopatra. Lisa Zinni’s gorgeous costumes only accentuate Lovett’s beauty and spectacular physique, (PSF’s costume budget probably exceeds the seasonal revenue of many Philly companies). Even Lovett’s tattoo fits the period. But the woman who captivated me with her 2006 performance as Rosalind failed to convince me here. In pushing Anthony away, she "is cunning past man’s thoughts," but her attempts at ardor convey far less passion than her verses imply.

Displaying little charm or tenderness, Lovett only wields the rough half of the push-pull histrionics that control Anthony, and beyond her beauty, I felt surprised that he returned. By contrast, even Chris Brown must have given Rihanna a backrub once in a while.

In fairness, Shakespeare’s Anthony serves up his manhood on a platter. When Cleopatra’s fleet flies from battle, Anthony deserts his troops to follow, and before he supped in Alexandria, Anthony sat at the feet of Caesar like a dog. But in a play called Anthony AND Cleopatra, PSF’s production takes this background for granted, and unfortunately, like Shakespeare’s histories, the real tragedy must then hide in the fact that these events actually happened.

Antony and Cleopatra runs through Aug. 2 at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, 2755 Station Ave., Center Valley, PA. For tickets or more information: 610-282-9455 or

1 comment:

Sondra Forsyth said...
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