By Philip Pearce
ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA features some of Shakespeare’s most sublime language and characters. But if you think that means Pacific Rep’s new production is full of pageantry, blank verse and tasteful togas, you’ll need to think again. What it offers is a brilliant, full-throttle ironic take on a Shakespearean masterpiece.
The lovers are as athletically erotic, unpredictably violent and darkly comic as any I’ve ever seen in the two central roles. Michael Storm is so powerful, focused and single minded as Antony that it’s tough, however artfully he goes through the motions, to believe he could even for a year or two become the doting slave of the Egyptian queen.
But then again she is played by the gloriously gifted Julie Hughett who more than justifies Enobarbus’ praise of Cleopatra’s “infinite variety.” Hughett gives us a mature woman who has served her romantic apprenticeship with Julius Caesar, among others, and is now an unparalleled expert in the tricks and turns of international love making. Possibly even better at conveying Cleopatra’s moments of jealousy and self-deception, Hughett has two scenes with Matthew T Pavellas as a terrified messenger bringing news of Antony’s marriage to another woman, played broader and funnier than any I have experienced in earlier visits to this play. Yet, for all her quicksilver explosions of feeling, Hughett never fails to project Shakespeare’s dialogue with impressive clarity.
Kenneth Kelleher has chosen to direct the story in the costumes, weaponry and attitudes of 1930s film noir. Cleopatra’s Egypt has the sleazy sophistication of Berlin in the closing days of the Weimar Republic. Yearning for her absent Antony, Cleopatra finds solace in dope from a reed pipe. Her attendants Charmian (a versatile Jennifer Le Blanc, who also plays Antony’s conventional Roman bride Octavia) and Iras (a beautiful and spirited Michelle Vallentyne) are a lesbian couple. Victim of their heartless group jibes is the caretaker eunuch Alexas, played with a gray suit and a lot of stoic pathos by Lewis Rhames.
The political big wigs of Mark Antony’s Rome dress like Wall Street bankers but inside their natty two piece suits they are gun packing gangsters. Justin Gordon is a convincing, calculating, bespectacled Caesar, who calls Antony away from Egypt to oppose the military threat of an upstart called Pompey (Rhames again, in a John Silver style turnabout). Caesar wants to put down Pompey by forming a three-man ruling partnership with Antony and Howard Burnham’s sympathetic but politically naive Lepidus. Watching the ensuing trickery and heavy boozing, you feel it’s a wonder the Empire survived as long as it did.
Countering all the political chicanery and erotic fireworks is Jeffrey Heyer, wonderfully earth-bound, tough and worldly wise as Antony’s military pal Enobarbus. Most productions take his famous description of Cleopatra floating past an enraptured crowd on her royal barge and fence it off as an isolated aria. Not so here. True to character and the pervading sardonic tone, Heyer’s battle-scarred Enobarbus offers the speech with a slyly lascivious locker-room wink and nod.
The limited space of the Circle Theater means battle scenes are compressed into imaginative symbolic patterns of gun-toting violence. Actors not engaged in a particular sequence are often used to silently shape the playing area and focus attention on the performing characters. Garland Thompson has effective moments in the spotlight as Caesar’s ingratiating messenger Maecenas, basking in the emperor’s favor, only to suffer a humiliating and well-acted rejection and beating. I warmed to the warm-hearted loyalty of Andrew Mazer as a friend of Antony named Eros and even more as the Clown who supplies Cleopatra with her famous deadly asp. I wasn’t dead sure, but it looked as if it was a poisonous drug injection, not a slimy serpent.
The performances throughout are clear, thorough and a bit noisy. If this admirable production has a fault it’s a tendency of everyone to try to out-shout everyone else. The action is swift and vivid, but Kelleher never loses touch with the underlying need to tell a story that involves lots of complicated historic events. Significant costuming helps. Cleopatra’s startling appearance in a sailor suit points ahead to the important offstage sea battle of Actium. From time to time, back projected newspaper headlines help establish the locale and political point of what is happening center stage. Torch songs from a tinny period phonograph also comment ironically on the action. When pressures from Rome force Antony to leave Egypt, a turntable whines out “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone.” A soothsayer, played with sly menace and a fine singing voice by Justin Gaudoin, drifts through the action, responding to requests for Tarot card predictions of success or failure in love and war. A nice innovation of this stunning show is the way this supporting character doesn’t so much participate in the action as lurk in the shadows whenever he appears. Almost like the MC in Cabaret, he begins to suggest and even embody the superstitious corruption of the society around him. The play closes not with the death of Cleopatra but with this weird wanderer singing along with a scratchy recording of “What Is This Thing Called Love.”
Antony and Cleopatra plays weekends through November 5th.
Photo by Stephen Moorer