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Review: ‘Anthony and Cleopatra’

Jules Becker

“Anthony and Cleopatra” is arguably the hardest of Shakespeare’s great tragedies to stage.

Unlike “Hamlet,” “Lear,” “Othello” and “Macbeth,” this is, of course, a play with two great tragic figures. Secondly, the two title characters are based in two very different worlds – Rome and Egypt. Add to these considerable factors a battle of the sexes as intense as a military conflict, and it is no wonder that local companies rarely tackle this immensely challenging work.

Based on the uneven results on view in the Actors’ Shakespeare Project (ASP) staging at the handsomely renovated Modern Theatre, it would appear that director Adrianne Krstansky and the adventurous company – who staged “Timon of Athens” last season – ought to have given more thought to that challenge.

Though set about 2000 years ago, “Anthony and Cleopatra” is a very modern work (at the risk of a pun about its venue) and that may be the problem with the ASP’s approach. The company clearly recognizes that Shakespeare was exploring the power of image and perception long before Madison Avenue and political spin-doctors.

Yet director Krstansky has lost the balance essential to that exploration by giving insufficient expression to the Roman side of it. Shakespeare’s bi-continental play moves back and forth between Rome and Egypt and also between Roman and Egyptian forces. ASP has unfortunately made substantial cuts at the expense of Roman considerations and Anthony’s complexity as an emotionally torn character.

The result is a production in which design sometimes conveys Shakespeare’s messages better than the cast. The walls at the Modern — covered with both classical mural and African ethnic coverings — complement the war between Roman practicality and Egyptian passion that Shakespeare portrays.

Designer Jeff Adelberg conveys the contrast between Rome and Egypt respectively in basic fluorescents for the former and more ornate lighting for Egypt. David Remedios certainly catches the more measured responses of Rome and the excesses of Egypt in his sound design, though rock music stretches seem out of place when contrasted with Middle East percussion passages.

Was Shakespeare guilty of stereotyping in associating Cleopatra more with desire than with reason. Surely, the complexity of the title characters and their motivations would answer in the negative.

If only Krstansky’s direction had sustained that complexity with all cast members. Paula Plum has all of Cleopatra’s allure and intellectual sharpness — especially as she imagines how Octavius Caesar would shame her if she were to travel to Rome with him.     By contrast, James Andreassi does better with the athletic-military-leader side of Anthony than he does with Anthony’s emotional vulnerability. Part of the blame may lie with the cuts in the text, but Andreassi needs to capture more of Anthony’s complex feelings over his emotional life and political responsibilities.

Doug Lockwood sometimes seems too rigid as Octavius, though he does have the right elusiveness for the role. Richard Snee has his moments as Brutus — but this production does not do enough to convey the character’s statesmanship. Mara Sidmore is properly caring as Cleopatra defender Charmian.

The revelation here is newcomer Johnnie McQuarley in his ASP debut. The African American, Brandeis MFA candidate plays a variety of roles with a confidence that never loses sight of the specific demands of each. His most notable work here comes in a crisp early speech as Anthony follower Philo – who provides pivotal exposition about the challenges facing his leader – and especially as a nervous messenger trying to answer Cleopatra properly without being killed for his message.

McQuarley is a talent to watch after his graduation.

Tragedy is all about hubris. With “Anthony and Cleopatra,” audiences should be mesmerized by two great victims of over-weaning pride – a Roman with uncontrolled passion and an Egyptian with unguarded strategizing. Regrettably, in the ASP edition, they need much more of the former and of Rome itself.