"Antony and Cleopatra" at Hartford Stage…Mixed metaphors

By Tom Nissley

The renovation of the wonderful Hartford Stage arena, completed in record time, and creating (in phase one) a new lobby, expanded restrooms, and most of all a fully trapped stage with a level edge that will accommodate wheelchairs and canes without treacherous dips, became the setting for a new production of Shakespeare’s "Antony and Cleopatra" in early October. Directed by Tina Landau, the best word to describe it might be "vast." Every corner of the opened stage was utilized, and if that wasn’t enough, entrances were repeatedly made through the audience to underscore how really big a concept was driving the action. On the whole, I found it a disappointing spectacle, for a number of reasons, starting with the casting, and extending to the confusion of the symbols that marked both the Egyptians and the Romans.

Kate Mulgrew, as Cleopatra, and John Douglas Thompson, as Antony, were sometimes powerful and sometimes out of sync, in their respective roles. When the latter moments occurred, way too often, it was easy to be distracted. And there were lots of distractions from which to choose. Over in one corner of the stage - stage right - there was furniture and elegant period costumes that showed old Alexandria in high fashion. But right from the start at a party that was hosted in an Egyptian corner, wines were served out of what appeared to be modern beer bottles. That’s a clue to something, but I haven’t figured out to what... Quickly it became apparent that the Romans were attired in modern dress, if you call combat boots and surgical coats modern dress. The beer bottles made more sense in that context when they reappeared in other scenes. The Romans were on stage left, and on a central balcony, built from steel and glass, that might have been Shakespearean in concept. But I hope you get what I mean by mixed metaphors.

Down the middle of the stage there was a striking blue line, about thirty inches across, that shimmered and turned out to be water under glass (or clear plastic) bricks - huge ones, that were removed for the second act, and then slowly replaced one by one, by two men at a time. This was the Nile - a clever and handsome addition to Blythe R D Quinlan's set design but one that also became a distraction as it was put back together.

There were some excellent and consistent performances within the large cast on stage. Scott Parkinson’s Caesar was consistent; Kimberly Hebert Gregory’s Charmian was consistent; Tony Yasbeck, as Alexas had a challenging persona and lived it very well, including singing a portion of the beautiful musical score put together by Lindsey Jones. Jake Green, as the messenger, was consistent and a delight. Many other persons in the company were adequate to good. Scott Zielinski’s lighting was exciting, but the overall production was confusing, and did not contribute sufficiently to the education of the audience to the full glory of Shakespeare’s "A and C."

Tickets and information at www.hartfordstage.org .

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