Antony & Cleo & Production Values

By Geary Danihy

Anne Frank was just a girl.

You walk into the recently renovated Hartford Stage and note the more spacious foyer and the much needed expansion of restroom facilities. You check your ticket and walk down a semi-darkened corridor and…BAM! The set for “Antony & Cleopatra” assaults you. It will, abetted by the lighting and sound, continue to assault you for the duration of the play, at times almost dwarfing the actors who must cope with what seems a space more appropriate for major manufacturing than the presentation of a Shakespearean play.

Director Tina Landau, in conjunction with lighting designer Scott Zielinski, has decided to transport you to Cleopatra’s land of sun and sand by blasting light at you, light that emanates from banks of circular instruments suspended in, I believe, four locations – it was difficult to look at them long enough to determine their exact number or location.

This overkill illumination fills the circular staging area (it’s too vast to call it a mere stage), which has a stream running down the center of it (more about this stream later) and a series of polished metal stairs and landings stage right and left that lead up to a glass booth (framed by a triangular arch to evoke the pyramids) that looks like the office of the plant manager – this will be “Rome” for most of the play. There’s also a white bookcase that runs almost floor to ceiling, upper stage left, filled with what looks like glass vases and goblets – don’t know what that’s for. I’m sure there’s some very relevant symbolism here, but it frankly escaped me.

A new sound system has also been installed as part of the renovation and, like a kid in a candy shop, sound designer Linday Jones has taken full advantage – there are blaring trumpets and explosions at various ear-piecing levels. Given the lighting and the sound assaults, by the end of the evening you would feel justified putting in for combat pay.

Oh, yes. The play? Sorry, I’m still decompressing. Well, this production of Shakespeare’s riff on Plutarch’s story of Mark Antony’s infatuation with the Queen of Egypt, in its best moments, takes full advantage of the humor inherent in the script. This is especially true of Kate Mulgrew’s portrayal of the famous femme fatale – she’s got the arch humor down pat – her interrogation of an oddly costumed Messenger (Jake Green) is priceless. What she doesn’t generate is any sense of the good queen’s regal nature. When Mulgrew is called upon to be “the queen,” there’s a certain bar-maidish quality to the effort, and her death scene – set in the center of the cavernous space – evokes little pathos.

However, being regal is no problem for John Douglas Thompson, who plays Antony. He, of all the characters, seems least upstaged by the staging and yet, in moments of high dudgeon, he appears to slip out of Shakespeare and into August Wilson – he sways, he stomps and he hops as if he’s Troy Maxson describing his fight with the devil.

As for the grand passion between Antony and Cleo, well for all the laying on of hands and limbs there’s not much rapture evident. Actually, they come off as an old married couple going through the motions, a problem given that the “tragedy” hinges on Cleopatra leaving a battle at a critical moment and Antony, throwing honor and “career” to the winds, following her. That’s what Shakespeare wrote and they go through with it, but it just doesn’t fly emotionally.

There’s some good support work in the evening, most notably that of Keith Randolph Smith as Enobarbus and Sean Allan Krill as Agrippa. They have several scenes together and play off nicely against each other as world-wise adjutants to the mighty. Smith especially seems attuned to what Landau was apparently attempting to accomplish with this production, for he captures the “ancient” quality of his character while giving it a subtly modern spin.

Also of note is Alexander Cendese’s take on Pompey, the general who challenges the might of Rome. He’s cocky and brash and delivers his lines without any Shakespearean affectations – he is a brash commander who wants to “get it on.” Mention should also be made of Freddie Lee Bennett’s Eros – he’s quite effective in the suicide scene – his distress is manifest and heartfelt.

Okay, so I said I’d come back to the stream, so here it is. There was a stream in the Stage’s production of “Gee’s Bend” and it was effective because it was an integral part of the story. The stream in “Antony & Cleopatra” is not integral to the play and becomes, in effect, a nuisance, what with some cast members spending major amounts of time in the second act wiping up spills and spatters and others having to re-set rectangular sections of framed Lucite to cover the stream. All of this effort for what purpose? Not sure.

All in all, this production of “Antony & Cleopatra” is ruled by production values -- it’s a “big” show whose very bigness makes the characters seem miniscule, with a lot of sound and fury signifying…well, you be the judge.

“Antony & Cleopatra” runs through Sunday, Nov. 7. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or got to www.hartfordtsage.org.     

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