BWW Reviews: Poor Shadows Stages the Often Forgotten ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA
It's no secret that Antony and Cleopatra is one of Shakespeare's most neglected works. Despite its well-known characters (who doesn't know who Cleopatra was?), the play is rarely produced. In a program note, Poor Shadows of Elysium's Artistic Director, Kevin Gates, suggests that the play's decline in popularity stems from the gender politics of the Victorian Era. "I've always seen this as Cleopatra's play," says Gates. "Peter Brook observed that many Victorian actors felt the same, and that's one reason why the play fell out of favor during the Victorian era. No actor worth his salt wanted to be upstaged by an actress." Gates and Brook are both right. This is indeed Cleopatra's play, especially in Poor Shadow's current production.
Shakespeare's telling of the love affair between Roman Antony and Egyptian Cleopatra is a tough one to pin to a genre. The text is a delicate and sometimes jarring mix of comedy, tragedy, political drama, and history which jumps from location to location faster than the flooding of the Nile. Due to the cast of 34 characters-excluding soldiers, messengers, and attendants-and 43 scenes spanning across Egypt and Rome, Antony and Cleopatra is a difficult one to stage. Director Joe Falocco wisely decides to stage the show as it would have been in the early modern era, with universal lighting, cast doubling, and no set. While the traditional approach is refreshing as it's so seldom done today, it clashes with occasional modern directorial choices. Cleopatra's eunuch is played as a rom-com cliché of the gay hair stylist. When drunk, Antony's men sing The Ramones tune "Blitzkrieg Bop." While the moments may be entertaining, they aren't consistent with the overall style and tone of the piece.
Similarly, there are some thematic missed opportunities. More could be done to contrast the antagonistic Caesar's Rome with Cleopatra's Egypt. Heightening the differences between these two worlds would increase Antony's predicament of being stuck somewhere between the two. More could also be done with the themes of gender. The fact that a woman had such a strong impact on two of the largest empires in the world is something that we still discuss today, but it's not really touched upon in this staging.
The lack of set and lighting, while keeping in sync with the traditional approach to the material, creates another problem. If there's no set or lighting to look at, the costumes then become the only visual element that can clue us in to place, time, and character. Costumer Cherie Weed frankly isn't up to the demands. Her costumes seem hastily constructed and not well thought out. Antony wears shorts under his armor. Caesar wears polyester. Everyone wears wrinkled garments with unfinished hems. The flawed costumes often distract from the action rather than enhance the story. I understand that Poor Shadows of Elysium is a newer theater company with a presumably strained bank account, but finishing hems and ironing garments costs nothing but time.
While the problems with the costumes are tough to ignore, the same could be said for the strengths of the cast. Charlie Stites is ruthless and frightening as Octavius Caesar. As Antony's friend Enobarbus, Heath Thompson puts his voice to great use. Thompson is a performer who was born to speak Shakespeare's poetic language. As Antony, Kevin Gates gives a solid performance. This is certainly a man that others would rally around in battle. But, as Gates says in his own program note, this is Cleopatra's show.
Bridget Farias flawlessly tackles the troublesome role of the Egyptian Queen. While some historians have pegged Cleopatra as an opportunistic seductress and others have labeled her as a cunning leader, Farias, and Shakespeare's text for that matter, suggest that she was a bit of both. She's flighty and unpredictable, and even when beating a servant half to death (Cleopatra certainly hasn't heard the phrase "don't blame the messenger"), you're still, somehow, on her side.
Though Antony and Cleopatra may have some rough edges and unfinished hems, it is a joy and a privilege to see a production of one of Shakespeare's often overlooked plays, and Farias's interpretation of what may be Shakespeare's most complex female characters is reason enough to buy a ticket.
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission.
ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA, produced by Poor Shadows of Elysium, plays the Curtain Theatre at 7400 Coldwater Canyon Dr, Austin, 78730 now thru Sunday, May 18th. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 6pm. Tickets are $15. For tickets and information, please visit www.poorshadows.com