Go Little Worm, Go!

By David A. Rosenberg

Alas and alack, give me my three hours back. At the attractively renovated Hartford Stage, Shakespeare’s epic tragedy, “Antony and Cleopatra,” suffers from that old bugaboo, style over substance. Director Tina Landau’s take on the tale of two lovers whose affair and betrayals bring down not only themselves but a kingdom, comes up short on illuminating the play’s passion (though there’s a lot of rolling around), power (though there’s a lot of double-dealing) and politics (though there’s a lot of history).

From the very first lines to Octavius Caesar’s final peroration, the work is a stunning examination of the theory that history is made not by dates but by people. Wars may be started because a ruler wants to prove something; dynasties rise and fall on personal slights. Shakespeare, ever the humanitarian, knew this, knew that Antony and Cleopatra’s lust for each other would be replaced by their lust for ascendancy and both lusts would destroy them.

Little of this comes through in this production which is busier creating pretty pictures than in delineating one of civilization’s greatest and most erotic love stories. Take that first speech, beginning with the ambiguous “Nay, but” and ending with characterizing the mighty Antony as “strumpet’s fool.”

Landau breaks up this in media res opening by having it delivered not by one character but eight soldiers. Batting the words back and forth is a sure way of diverting attention from meaning.

An admittedly difficult play to stage with its many scenes bouncing between Rome and Alexandria, West vs. East, it needs central characters on equal footing to tie it together. Here, while John Douglas Thompson is a booming Antony, he lacks nobility, a strange omission for an actor who gave audiences a brilliant Richard III, Othello and Emperor Jones. Still, he outclasses Kate Mulgrew’s superficial, heavy-footed Cleopatra. 

Hartford’s expansive stage area is used to the fullest. An upstage right alcove belongs to the hot, sensuous Egyptians, with hanging beads, red lighting and an air of languor. Upstage left is cold Roman territory, with pristine white chairs, skulls on pikes and an air of the effete. Both are backed by rows of liquor bottles as if they were competing bars.

Antony is caught between the two, as he is when he splashes through the narrow trough of blue water running from up to down stage. Presumably this is the Nile which symbolically divides Egypt from Rome. Stopping the play's headlong motion, it’s awkward and not worth the effort.  

Landau uses the theater’s aisles for some entrances and exits, causing the audience to crane necks, glimpsing not only actors but fellow playgoers in various modes of attention. A work so set in its milieu needs no breaking of the fourth wall. If a contemporary point is being made, it’s obscure.

As Octavia, Antony’s Roman wife, Kendra Underwood exudes a sexiness that Mulgrew lacks. As the beset Messenger, Jake Green is lively and amusing. As Agrippa, Sean Allan Krill is both dignified and commanding.

Landau has done excellent work (Broadway’s “Superior Donuts,” off-Broadway’s ”Floyd Collins”) and does well here with crowd scenes: a slo-mo battle, a rowdy drinking contest. Linday Jones’ music and sound design are heavy on drums, Blythe R. D. Quinlan’s set design is a jumble (what’s that sometimes fractured sun represent?), Scott Zielinski’s lighting seems arbitrary (those blinding spotlights!), while Anita Yavich’s muddled costumes could use ironing..

The heart of this great play rests with its title characters who are supposed to generate white-hot emotional heat. Thompson’s Antony, though he has moments of vigorous authority, doesn’t rise to become “the triple pillar of the world.” Nor can one say of Mulgrew’s Cleopatra that “age cannot wither her nor custom stale her infinite variety.” By the time she clasps that deadly asp to her breast, you’re mighty glad that “the worm” has at last done its duty.

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