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Antony and Cleopatra

Epically Intimate

Brave Spirits Theatre, The Lab at Convergence, Alexandria, Virginia
Friday, September 16, 2016, second row, corner seats of black box theater in the round
Directed by Charlene V. Smith

Antony in black shirt and gray riding coat kisses Cleopatra, barearmed, blue skirt, and holding a scroll; he has his hands holding her neck.
Antony (Joe Carlson) and Cleopatra (Jessica Lefkow) find their focus in each other in Brave Spirits' production of William Shakespeare's play. Below, Menas (Hilary Kelly) has a more casual courtship with Enobarbus (John Stange). Photos by Claire Kimball, Brave Spirits Theatre.

Charlene V. Smith is one of my favorite young directors of Shakespeare plays. The artistic director of Brave Spirits Theatre based in Alexandria, Virginia, brings textual respect and theatrical wonder to her productions while layering in her own visionary staging skills. Most of all, she brings audacity to her work, a youthful exuberance, brash confidence, and a sense of adventure as she tackles both tried-and-true and obscure titles with small casts and small budgets in small spaces before small audiences.

William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra is her latest engagement, and she had me at hello—even before the play started. Shakespeare's plot covers the eastern half of the Mediterranean in territory, and he populates that world with 35 named speaking parts and almost an equal number of bit players. Nevertheless, the action focuses mostly on private moments among lovers, rival politicians, and military or domestic units. I've seen many memorable productions in a variety of theaters, from landscape stages to in-the-round spaces, but I've always thought this play would be best staged in a living room, an intimate space where public and private domains overlap.

That's the feel we get with Eric McMorris's set for this production. The floor is covered with Persian rugs, and the audience sits in four, two-tiered sections of eight chairs in each corner of the room (plus eight seats for latecomers lined up on the former fellowship hall's regular stage). No furniture, per se, but we'll get to the props in a bit. The costuming is modern, with Designer Melissa Huggins dressing the Roman generals in long riding coats with laced-on sleeves serving as their armor and Cleopatra wearing fashionable blouse and pants with a flyaway ball-gown skirt. The Roman soldiers are generally wearing gray coats, jackets, vests, and ties (depending on their ranks), and the Egyptians are in blue or green (depending on how the light hits the fabric). The black-clad actors, playing many roles, merely switch from one-color vest to another-color tie en route to returning for a subsequent scene. Though the factions of Antony, Lepidus, and Pompey are in gray, Octavius Caesar and his forces wear white. Despite the small space, Lighting Designer Jason Aufdem-Brinke provides a full palette of moods and isolation lighting as scenes shift in a constant flow of action from Alexandria to Rome and to Sicily and to Athens and back to Alexandria, with a significant detour to Parthia along the way.

"Jetting between Egypt and Rome and back again, with over 50 speaking characters, and a number of quick scenes in quick succession, Antony and Cleopatra has frequently been described as Shakespeare's most filmic play," Smith writes in her program notes. "Instead of trying to make it feel like a movie, however, our approach has been to bring out what it is that makes this instead a work of theater: A constantly moving ensemble of 10 actors; movement and imagination instead of realism; juxtaposing the large-scale with the intimate."

"Imagination instead of realism." To represent the sea fight at Actium, the cast carries pennants in formation back and forth across the play space until Cleopatra, standing with her pennant up on the stage, turns and flees as Antony departs in hot pursuit. For the second sea battle, Antony gets caught up in a web of blue fabric woven by the rest of the cast. The poles representing swords become a makeshift stretcher for the self-wounded Antony. More such streams of fabric, with Antony and Cleopatra on the shoulders of their entourages, represent the dying Roman being pulled up into the Egyptian's monument. The most imaginative prop is the throne Cleopatra sits on for the final act of her life: it's comprised of four actors, one on his hands and knees as the seat, two kneeling to form the armrests, and Antony himself as the seat back, twisting around so that his own arm becomes the asp that bites Cleopatra. Never mind the economy and efficiency of this staging, it is allegorically rich.

This play is called Antony and Cleopatra for a reason. It is their love story; how Caesar became the first emperor of the Roman Empire is a subplot. Antony and Cleopatra occupy every one of the play's 42 separate scenes: even if they are not physically on the stage, they are the topic of conversation among those on the stage. Smith keeps in most of those scenes (she trims scenes internally to get the play's running time down to just over 2 1/2 hours, including a 15-minute intermission). She even keeps in the Parthian scene where Antony's lieutenant Ventidius (Anika Harden) kills the Parthian prince Pacorus, an obscure historical kibble that seems superfluous to anything else happening in the play. Most productions I've seen lop out that scene, but Smith rightly figured that scene is integral to the playwright's grand plan, especially with Shakespeare setting up that particular moment several scenes before when Antony sends Vintidius to Parthia. While Smith infuses the scene with a bit of humor as the Romans carry off Pacorus's body while singing, "We don't need no Parthians hanging around," the episode serves to establish the soldier's creed of captainship and lieutenancy that Antony and Octavius both live by; and would die by, for that creed, as Octavius notes, creates a tension between them that they can never knit up. Cleopatra has nothing to do with that.

However, Cleopatra's presence overwhelms Antony's Roman soul. After Antony's marriage to Octavia, Octavius's sister, the Soothsayer (Madeline Burrows) tells Antony that his fortunes will fall as those of Octavius advance. Antony accepts this as truth and consciously sets out a course that has nothing to do with soldiership: "I will to Egypt," he says. "And though I make this marriage for my peace, I'th'east my pleasure lies." That he says this immediately before sending Ventidius to Parthia represents how conflicted this man is.

As if the play didn't have enough scenes, Smith adds a 43rd, but it's one of the most significant of the production. As Cleopatra sits at one end of the room, in deep, lonely contemplation, Antony enters, newly returned from Rome via Athens, watches her a moment, and then brushes his hands along a set of chimes hanging there, whereupon she looks up and sees him. They step toward each other and meet in the middle of the room, kissing as the lights go out for the intermission. There's electricity even as he enters the room before she sees him, and from the perspective of our corner seat, we can see the love and fascination in Antony's eyes as he watches her, and we can see her body tensing with anticipation as she approaches him. In this moment we experience, intimately, all that matters for them and this, their play: his complete infatuation with her and her overwhelming love for him.

Sparking that charge are Joe Carlson as Antony and Jessica Lefkow as Cleopatra. Lefkow's Egyptian queen is an intelligent woman, a commanding presence always, but proud and vain with a superiority complex she even uses on Antony in the opening scenes. She likes to toy with her men before devouring them (by report, she did so with Julius Caesar, and we see Lefkow's Cleopatra cast a calculating look when she hears Octavius's overtures via the messenger Thidias (Seth Rosenke), and then when Octavius himself (Brendan McMahon) greets her later. It's only after Antony departs for Rome that she realizes how fully she actually loves this guy (she's loved so many before him, she thought), and her attack on the messenger reporting Antony's marriage to Octavia, though still funny, is sincerely driven by her passion.

Carlson's portrayal of Antony is as much a physical performance as it is mental. He has an easy, proud bearing around Octavius and the other Romans, but when he's in Egypt he prowls the stage, his eyes ever alert and casing his environs while his sinews speak volumes about his love for Cleopatra. As Enobarbus (John Stange) and others of his soldiers beg with Antony to fight on land and not at sea at Actium, Carlson's Antony remains in focused infatuation with his "serpent of old Nile." Later, her helping dress Antony in his armor before his land battle is sensuous, then sexual, and then they kiss. Deeply. He's going into a battle against great odds (and will win this one), but all that matters is that kiss.

Both actors are adept at speaking the script's verse, Lefkow with an easy, personality-driven flow, Carlson with a more pronounced sense of the rhythm (but that could be character-driven, too). Carlson also plays to the audience, making us his soldiers, his servants, his fellow partyers. He goes to a deep place when he wails to Cleopatra, "O wither hath thou led me, Egypt?" after the battle of Actium. Lefkow finds great substance in her Cleopatra's mourning after Antony's death. The fifth act of Antony and Cleopatra can be one of the most tedious passages of time in the entire Shakespeare canon without a Cleopatra who is all-in with her emotional state, and Lefkow keeps us engaged enough that her death comes on just a bit too fast.

These two actors anchor a generally solid cast. McMahon is an intriguing Octavius Caesar. He's the epitome of stillness in his performance, letting his words and steady bearing express the weight of his authority (even during the bacchanal party on Pompey's barge). McMahon doesn't make him a villain in any way: His Octavius is a man of strict moral temperament and pragmatism, and he earnestly believes in the Pax Romana he hopes to achieve by unifying the empire under his rule. He can say coolly of Antony's message of surrender, "I have no ears to his request," yet he mourns sincerely upon news of Antony's death. "O Antony, I have followed thee to this," he says with a trace of guilt. But quickly his pragmatic self resurfaces. "I must perforce have shown to thee such a declining day or look on thine: we could not stall together in the whole world." And that is a truth for these two captains.

Speaking of the serious Octavius, the gene runs in the family: Micaela Mannix plays a coldly serious Octavia, in contrast to her impish Charmian. Burrows, playing the Soothsayer and Pompey, is a young actress with incredible mastery of Shakespeare's verse. Her Soothsayer is like a cat meditating on its name, closely inspecting her paw, while her Pompey is a force of personality that merits the wary attention of the Roman Triumvirate of Octavius, Antony, and Lepidus (Darren Marquardt). Rosenke also portrayas multiple personalities in his various roles, but most intriguing is his Thidius, the Roman officer Octavius sends as his emissary to Cleopatra, revealing himself to be an incredibly forward cad in his efforts and is whipped just offstage for his impertinence.

Menas in flack jacket, black pants and shoes, no socks sits on the carpeted floor fingering a bottle opposite Enobarbus stretched out beside her and sitting up on his elbows, whearing a flak vest.Characters tend to move about the play space during scenes, a flow of action that perhaps metaphorically reflects the swirling passions and epochal events of the play. Such constant movement becomes excessive with Enobarbus, however, as Stange plays him with all manner of tics and facial expressions. This may be the carefree, casual nature of the character, but there's one speech, describing Cleopatra on her barge, when these mannerisms should be shelved. There are certain moments when an actor needs to get out of Shakespeare's way and just let his lovely phrasing flow, because that flow is the software that in and of itself delivers the emotional, psychological, and allegorical goods; this is one of those moments.

Smith has a record of keeping her actors focused on the text, and this production bears that trademark. But she diverts in a most interesting—and appropriate—way by having the roles played by women be women. Burrows' Pompey is addressed as "madam," Harden's Agrippa, the consummate soldier in Octavius's council, is a woman, and so is Menas, the pirate ally of Pompey played by Hilary Kelly (who also plays Iras). She's all business early in the barge party as she conceives a plan to break the ship free of its moorings and kill the triumvirs for Pompey. However, after Pompey chastises her for telling her instead of merely doing it: "In me 'tis villainy: in thee't had been good service," Pompey says, though Menas is abiding by her soldier's creed. Thereafter, Kelly's Menas joins in the drinking and carousing, and then she hits on Enobarbus. "Menas, I'll not on shore," Enobarbus says. "No, to my cabin," she replies, and we have no doubt that they will finish the party with one of their own.

That knits in with a pervading theme of Antony and Cleopatra and Smith's staging: What happens when fortune has interminably slipped away from your hands? For Menas, it's a one-night stand of sex. For Antony and Cleopatra, it's indulging in a love that turns every second into forever.

Eric Minton
September 22, 2016

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