It Takes Guts: Antony and Cleopatra
The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald Arthur (1892)
Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare
Illinois Shakespeare Festival
Regional Theatre, Bloomington-Normal, Illinois
Reviewed by Scott Klavan, July 19, 2014
The Illinois Shakespeare Festival says on its website that Shakespeare’s Antony & Cleopatra is an “often-requested, seldom-performed love story.”After considering the world in which we live, and seeing the ISF’s current production of Antony… , one understands the contemporary pull of the play, as well as the difficulty of putting it on stage, and doing it justice.
The Illinois Shakespeare Festival, located in Bloomington-Normal, two hours south-west of Chicago, smack in the middle of the state, is the Midwest’s most dedicated showcase of Shakespeare’s works, as well as plays that relate to these and other classics. For 37 years, the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, in partnership with Illinois State University’s College of Fine Arts and School of Theatre and Dance, has done a real service to Regional Theater—and all American culture—by dedicating itself so committedly to the great theatrical works, in well-appointed, loving productions. This summer, they are featuring plays with gender themes: an all-male Much Ado About Nothing, Timothy Findley’s imaginative historical drama, Elizabeth Rex, and Antony and Cleopatra. Performing summers outdoors in a handsome 438-seat house, the Theatre at Ewing, surrounded by the pastoral gardens of the local Ewing Manor estate, the Festival often uses students and graduate students in on-stage and backstage roles. The Festival does matinees in ISU’s indoor theater at the Center for the Performing Arts, which is where this reviewer, travelling in the Midwest from New York, saw Antony & Cleopatra.
The story takes place in the years 40 to 30 BC, when, after the assassination of Julius Caesar, Rome is led by revered warrior Mark Antony, and Caesar’s grand-nephew, Octavius Caesar, and Marcus Lepidus. The married Antony’s intense affair with Cleopatra, the dynamic, sensuous, and self-involved Queen of Egypt, has roiled the political and social atmosphere. Octavius and Lepidus worry that Antony’s romantic alliance with Cleopatra will weaken him, split his focus and threaten their own rule. Suddenly, Antony’s wife Fulvia dies and, in a marriage of strategy and convenience, he weds Octavius’s sister Octavia; this stokes the fiery Cleopatra’s jealousy.
Rival Sextus Pompey launches an assault against Rome. Soon after, Octavius turns against Antony, and marches on Egypt. Cleopatra’s aligns her forces with Antony’s but the Queen’s army proves inadequate; Antony takes humiliating losses. Antony fights back, winning battles, briefly resurrecting his reputation and confidence. But when Cleopatra’s army fails again, Antony obsessively thinks Cleopatra has taken Octavius’ side. For her part, Cleopatra, manipulating Antony, sends him a message that she has committed suicide. Antony is bereft, and he tries to stab himself, but botches it, only causing the death of his servant Eros, and giving himself a serious wound. He finally dies in Cleopatra’s arms. Grief-stricken, intent on joining her lover in death, Cleopatra has an asp delivered to her, and its poison kills the Queen.
Antony & Cleopatra seems extraordinarily cogent in our current day. With its theme of thwarted heroism, its story of flawed people trying mightily, vainly, to live up to an ideal of bravery and integrity, the play fits comfortably into the chaotic, bewildering, and bewildered, self-indulgent 21st century. Antony’s desperate need to triumph in the manly art of war, sabotaged by his helpless, dependent lust for a woman; Cleopatra’s wish for a mighty, flawless hero, diverted by her own ambition and egoistic desires; the mix of consternation, disappointment and envy felt by soldiers, colleagues, hangers-on and enemies over the scandalous coupling of these two venerated rulers; the ruination of the public life of celebrated leaders by their overweening private desires; all feel up-to-date, a perfect fit.
The parallels to 2014 are startlingly apparent: the large number of modern men who feel emasculated by the growing power of women; the women who struggle to balance their love of achievement with their love of men; both sexes’ problematic decisions regarding the battle of family versus career; rising political reputations brought quickly, thunderously down by embarrassingly sloppy, explosive corruptions, mistakes, and lusts; the cowardly Little Men of Terrorism replacing the undaunted past warriors of gigantic armies and causes. Even though, today, we profess a world-weary, ironic disbelief in strength and heroism—unlike the people of Shakespeare’s play, who unashamedly wear their adoration of perfect stalwart courage out in the open—common sense tells us our need for it survives; hurt, shrunken, underground, but alive and hungry, and we recognize it in the words of Shakespeare’s Antony: “if I lose my honor, I lose myself.”
And in Cleopatra’s lines mourning her dead Antony:
The soldier’s pole is fall’n: young boys and girls
Are level now with men: the odds is gone,
And there is nothing left remarkable
Beneath the visiting moon.
This play, then, hits home, and a new production requires, demands, a bold, adventurous interpretation to capture its peculiar resonance.
The ISF presentation delivers its lines with precision and clarity. The actors try determinedly to keep the pace and plot twists buoyant and lively, a tough task with such an involved, jammed-up tale; but they mostly manage to succeed. Todd Denning as Antony is a bald, tattooed warrior, with more brutish characteristics than usually attempted with the part. Denning’s vocal strength is huge, and his ferocity more than a match for any current Regional Theater, or Broadway, actor. Deborah Staples has fine verbal technique, a womanly, assured sexuality, and an enjoyably sly sense of humor. These two seasoned performers anchor the show as they should, and the audience is grateful for their potent, veteran skills.
Where the production falls short is in its lack of details, nuances, in the interplay between Antony & Cleopatra, between all the characters, actually, and in a certain standardized, held-back intimacy that never the allows the players to flail in the flames of their uncontrollable, self-aggrandizing sexuality. Basically, director Kevin Rich, also ISF’s Artistic Director, doesn’t go deep or far enough. The play deserves an earthier, less inhibited depiction of its actions and evocations of its words. The show doesn’t fully use its weapons, doesn’t take advantage of its language. The characters, whose complexities are expressed with such diversity and richness by Shakespeare, here lapse into a formalized generality. We get one “basic idea” of each military man, servant, and politician, but don’t get to follow them through the twisting yet specific and distinct tunnels and lanes of identity, the ins and outs, changes and undulations of personality.
Cleopatra’s lustful dances are brief and rushed, her embraces with Antony clean and orderly. We can see much worse every day, on big and small screens, on the subway and street. In order to reach us, to jump off the stage and meld into the raunchy, confused, arrogant-naïve world experienced by modern audiences, the play needs to accost us, grab us by the collar, hair, and ass. To be blunt, we need to be turned on, embarrassedly titillated by the hot, uncouth fucking of Antony and Cleopatra, or we’ll escape unscathed. Similarly, Antony’s beating of his servant, and Cleopatra’s pummeling of the messenger who reports Antony’s marriage, are stagey and safe. These moments cry out for a harsh, unbridled cruelty. When, in real life, we can be appalled and disgusted by just turning on the news, or opening a journalistic website, these scenes have to keep pace.
Antony’s unmanning failure remains mild and instead of showing us a soldier naked without his pride, Antony merely fluctuates between loud and a little-less-loud bellowing. Only in the final section, with Antony’s miserably poor suicide attempt, resulting in the death of his devoted servant Eros (well-played by Ron Roman) and Cleopatra’s orchestrated death-by-asp, does the production touch the bottom of its characters. At this point, Todd Denning allows a needed variety in tone, and Staples’s Cleopatra truly connects with her two young maids (vividly portrayed by Bethany Hart and Faith Servant) and expresses her own despair at the failure to find a world-beating man greater than Life, with eloquence. (Michael Pine also brings an intriguing eccentricity to the role of Pompey.)
In Antony & Cleopatra, Shakespeare gave us a play that links powerfully with the perplexities, longings, and miseries, of our current age. While the Illinois Shakespeare Festival should be lauded and applauded for having the stomach to attempt the piece—and all the challenging classics they perform—it will take another production to drive it home, down into our guts.
Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. As an actor, Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including The Joy Luck Club, and in regional theater. In 2014, he shot a featured role in the new Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater by the Blind (TBTB, now Theater Breaking Through Barriers), and his play Double Murder was published in Best American Short Plays of 2006-2007 by Applause Books. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Klavan saw Antony and Cleopatra while in central Illinois as the Visiting Playwright for the Mike Dobbins Memorial New Plays from the Heartland program at Heartland Theatre Company. Currently, he is directing a one-woman show, My Stubborn Tongue, about a Russian immigrant’s experience in the USA, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn. It opens in August at the New Ohio Theater in New York City.
Other recent reviews by Scott Klavan for EIL:
Thanks to Wikipedia/Wikimedia for the public domain images of Antony and Cleopatra