"Antony & Cleopatra" -- Star-Crossed Lovers

Bob and Karen Isaacs

Shakespeare wrote three plays at different times of his life that focused on two characters: Romeo and Juliet, Troilus and Cressida, and Antony and Cleopatra. In the larger sense each deals with love at different stages of life from youthful to mature.  Antony and Cleopatra is the last in the line designed to show how even in the most mature and powerful persons love conquers all.

John Dryden rewrote this play in the 17th century and called it, appropriately, All for Love that perfectly states what many believe Shakespeare intended to show, that when it comes to love human beings are willing to sacrifice everything.  In the case of Antony and Cleopatra, their love for each other results in the sacrifice not only of their lives but also of their world, for Antony it is  one third of the Roman empire and for Cleopatra her rule over Egypt.

For director Tina Landau at the Hartford Stage Company this concept apparently was important enough for her to stress the idea that the play is one of passions.  And as a result she attempts to demonstrate the depths of the passion that filled these two so that they commit a variety of actions that lead to their destruction.  Love is like justice apparently blind.

The problem for Landau is to show the depths of the passion that leads two perfectly rational and politically astute persons to the top of the slippery slope down which they eventually slide.  It appears from the production now on the stage at HSC that she finds that noise and much rushing about produces passion. Unfortunately, though committed to passion, Landau and this cast wind up in a frenzy of movement caught under a barrage of sound and light that does nothing to express the passion between the lovers.  Oh, yes, there’s a lot of smooching and squeezing and even some semi-nudity but none of it  prouces the sense of any deadly passion.

One of the reasons for this is that the noise often drowns out the marvelous dialogue in which the full passion of the relationship is expressed.  Even the wonderful speech by Enobarbus, “The barge she sat in…,” is lost in the uproar that surrounds this production. To make this play work in the rapid fire way in which parts of it need to be presented Shakespeare used several many short scenes; unfortunately in this production, the short scenes take too much time and some of them even involve  running up and down the stairs in the theater.

However, this kind of directorial attempt could easily have been overcome if the players were able to produce the Shakespearean language. Kate Mulgrew, doing her best to show off her body and using it in a variety of sensual ways, never really gets the flow of the dialogue and the quality of the Shakespearean language.  In fact in her last scene despite the terrible situation that confronts Cleopatra, Mulgrew seems to be dragging everything out as if it were an opera,  so that you feel like shouting out, “get it over with.”

Before that, John Douglas Thompson as Antony, deciding to do away with himself before Octavius can take him prisoner, instead of keeping the audience tensely rapt, makes you consider the way he’ll do it.  Even the suicide of his aide, Eros, ( Freddie Lee Bennett) rather than assist Antony in his quest for death proves just another event in a succession of “just another” events so you don’t even feel the loss.  A little earlier Thompson’s Antony, on the eve of battle, takes his farewell of his troops that Enobarbus (Keith Randolph Smith) explains the effect this has on the troops, but the moment has no effect on the audience.

These scenes plus others illustrate the inability of Landau and her cast to present the passion that motivates these characters. And for us the chief reason is that they are unable to use the dialogue properly. This effort – and it seems an effort too – unfortunately illustrates the continuing inability of American performers to express Shakespeare.

The scenic design of Blythe R. D. Quinlan and the lighting of Scott Zielinski are top notch and carry a lot of the burden of this production.  There certainly are some questions about aspects of the setting, especially the waterway that runs down the middle of the stage.  If this was supposed to symbolize the division between the staid Roman world and the luxury of the Egyptian, it doesn’t work.  Likewise having Thompson wade through the waterway as he tells us about the failure of his naval adventure does little more than splash water on the stage that requires some effort to wipe up and leaves you wondering how he is going to dry off in time for his next appearance in the play.

Antony and Cleopatra is at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., in downtown Hartford, through Nov.7. For tickets and information call 860-527-5151 or on-line at www.hartfordstage.org.

This review appeared in Shore Publications.


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