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A CurtainUp Review
Antony & Cleopatra
By Elyse Sommer
As usual with the Theatre for New Audiences' educational mission, the current three-play season has been built around a theme, in this case "Africa, Europe, America: Exploring Connections." This began with Adrienne Kennedy's Ohio State Murders and was followed by Aphra Behn's Oroonoko. Antony and Cleopatra rounds out this theme with its African queen and at the same time features the playwright who is the cornerstone of any TNFA season. As the program notes indicate, the late 19th century era into which Mr. Tresjak has moved this production bears out the "Connections" as this was an era when Europeans, like Ancient Romans looks to Africa as a place for conquest.
With Laila Robins as Cleopatra there's no question about the Queen as a convincing seductress. Robins is a fine, lovely looking actress though perhaps more elegant than exotic, even with a wig of dark, long curls and Linda Cho's sexy costumes. Most importantly, she delivers Shakespeare's language with clarity and passion and captures some, if not all, of Egypt's complexity.
While there's plenty of sizzle in Cleopatra's opening scene with Antony, Marton Csokas' portrayal of the besotted Roman is more problematic. The New Zealand thespian fits the part physically and is no stranger to the Bard's work abroad. However, his speeches here are too often rants and, well, speech-y and worse still, not always audible even in this relatively small theater.
Unfortunately Csokas is not the only cast member with less than ideal line delivery and vividness. The one actor who best captures the personality and emotions of his character and talks the Bardian talk naturally and clearly is John Douglas Thompson as Enarbus. Even George Morfogen, one of our finest character actors, is just okay rather than superb. Except for his big deadly dagger scene, Randy Harrison is also surprisingly underwhelming as Antony loyalist Eros.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment, besides Csokas's Antony, is Jeffrey Carlson. Seeing his name in the cast lineup made me look forward to my visit to the Duke Theater. Carlson veers most atypically from his usually impressive and flamboyant persona. I somehow expected a more intense performance especially in his depiction of Octavius Caesar's attachment to his sister Octavia, but there wasn't even a hint of anything more than brotherly affection and political interest in his marrying her off to Antony. As directed here, this is a strangely emotionally laid back Octavius Caesor. And Lisa Velten Smith as Octabia is too bland to add any interest to the brother-sister dynamic.
Linda Cho's costumes include khaki uniforms suggestive of British colonialists, prettily trimmed to match the Alexander Dodge's beautiful two-level blue backdrop with a scrim backing that can open and close. Abetted by York Kennedy's lighting, the area behind the scrim is frequently transformed into battle scenes and even an ocean being navigated by sailboats. The main prop is a pool filled with real water. It's all fluidly eye-popping, but the problem with that downstage pool is that it obviously can't be moved. And so, as the scenes shift between Alexandria, Rome, Athens and Actium you don't have the sense of geographic scene shift. It's more as if the actors are simply walking from the kitchen to the living room in one house.
With all these sliding panels, intriguingly realized battle scenes and voyages and characters popping out on the main and upstairs playing areas, the many students in attendance at the matinee I attended, had plenty to keep them attentive and unfidgety. For added watchability, choreographer Peggy Hickey created some colorful dances, vividly executed by Christine Corpuz, Ryan Quinn, Christen Simon. And, just in case you haven't looked at your program, Mr. Trejnak several times brings on a photographer but somehow without some sort of old-fashioned photo projected at least once, this seems more gimmicky than intrinsic to what's happening on stage.
The final scene, whatever one's yeas or neas for the vicissitudes of this production, is interesting in that Cleopatra, who usually succumbs to the asp's poison while reclining on a couch, here sits tall on her throne attired in full queenly regalia (Lily Langrey is said to have died like this when she played Cleopatra 1880). It moves even the conquering Octavius Caesar to dsiplay enough humanity to have the lovers buried together.
Links to other productions of Antony and Cleopatra and our Shakespeare quotation page
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