We will never know what it was about Egypt’s Queen Cleopatra that made her ancient history’s “It” girl, but having conquered not one (Julius Caesar) but two (Marc Antony) Roman strong men, it must have been special.
Shakespeare’s historically based but imaginatively developed play about two of history’s greatest fools for love – Antony and Cleopatra – strikes so many modern notes that anyone who admits to the memory of besotted love may blush for them.
She frets peevishly over Antony’s absence and when he returns, she sweeps from the room in a fit of pique, feigning illness. She has mastered the art of keeping a man so off balance that he tumbles into her arms. She is, as Antony observed too late to save himself, “cunning past man’s thought”. Custom cannot stale this queen’s infinite variety, but it can make your head spin, and in Antony’s case, make you fall on your sword.
Shirine Babb, stunning as the queen of Egypt, brings a seductive strength to the role. Once the young mistress of Julius Caesar, by the time Antony comes to call, she has developed the full breadth of her womanly powers, making her effect on him lethal to his ambition elsewhere in the world. As Antony, Cody Nickell lights up the stage with defiance and passion, but Cleopatra’s forceful personality and quicksilver changes of mood make it clear who is the rod and who is being reeled in.
Robert Richmond directs with his signature flair for creative interpretation. This is the second production in recent memory at the Folger that has opted to reconfigure the small, Elizabethan-styled thrust stage into theatre in the round. A triangle (or pyramid) within a circle creates the closed intimacy of the queen’s boudoir; a shift of Andrew Griffin’s astute lighting moves the action to Rome, on the outside of the circle. The slowly turning stage reveals tensely played conflicts from all sides. This staging brings the audience nearly into the players’ laps, highlighting the personal intimacy of the characters, and making us, quite literally, part of the inner chamber of intrigue.
In spite of the simplicity and elegance of the design – or perhaps because of it – the two major conflicts at war with one another never lose their focus. Antony tries to hold his position in the triumvirate, and ultimately loses it in battle with Octavius at Actium; Antony tries to hold on to the love affair with Cleopatra in spite of marrying Octavius’s sister for political purposes, and ultimately loses his life. Antony has a lot on his mind.
The shifting paces and electric immediacy of their love affair affect not just Antony’s posse of friends, but his enemies as well, and ultimately the course of history. The faithful Enobarbus (a drily witty portrayal by Nigel Gore) seconds Antony’s self-disgust for abandoning the sea battle to follow his lover’s retreating ships, and ultimately abandons Antony. Gore turns in a truly memorable performance with his deeply human moment by moment responses to the tumult around him.
Octavius is an icy youth, as played by Dylan Paul, disapproving and calculating. It makes sense, however, that the ambitious nephew of Caesar would watch his step, marry off his sister where it benefits him, and never risk his image to chance by being caught drunk and vulnerable like the all-too-human Lepidus (Robbie Gay). Mr. Gay also plays the luckless messenger, Dolabella, who has the unenviable task of telling Cleopatra that Antony has married Octavia. There is humor only because we are not the ones being threatened with a brutal death for bringing bad news.
Over a dozen roles have been eliminated, including Pompey, but the remaining cast is uniformly strong. Nicole King goes seamlessly from Caesar’s sister, Octavia – and the pawn in his game – to Iras, a devoted handmaid of the queen. Anthony Martinez is both Antony’s friend, Eros, and the Soothsayer whose gift of prescience is treated as a parlor game until he treads too closely to unspoken fears.
Adam Stamper’s sound design separates pillow talk in Egypt from slightly reverberated power talk in Rome, and his original compositions subtly underscore pacing and mood. Battle scenes both on land and sea are highly stylized events where many are effectively represented by a few. Mariah Hale’s costumes suggesting historical period and place have modern touches. Cleopatra’s inner chamber is all soft lights and diaphanous pastels; Caesar’s world of power and conquest exists in harsh light and shadow, and leathers of brown and black. Antony treads precariously between the two.
Even his clumsy suicide has its moments as he, writhing on the floor in agony, learns that Cleopatra isn’t really dead – she just wanted to see what he’d do if she were. Grim irony gives way to an electrified moment as the queen wails her grief over the body.
Flawless vision and clear performances make this study of infinitely flawed people a memorable affair.
Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher.
WANT TO GO?
What: “Antony and Cleopatra”
Where: Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol St. SE, Washington, D.C.
Call: (202) 544-7077 or visit www.folger.edu/theatre
Playing through Nov. 19