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BWW Reviews: Shakespeare Festival St. Louis' ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA


One of the joys of late Spring is taking in the latest offering by Shakespeare Festival St. Louis each year in Forest Park. There's just something truly special about sitting under the stars and watching the immortal bard's words come to life on stage. This year the play of choice is the tragedy Antony and Cleopatra, which has the distinction of having more scenes than any other play he penned. It's also chock full of wonderful, poetic language, takes place in an exotic location (ancient Egypt), and makes a convincing argument for staying out of the affairs of the Middle East. This production is distinguished by some particularly excellent performances, as well as some wonderful stagecraft, but it may be a bit too verbose, and lacking in action, for its own good.

The plot is a bit convoluted at times, beginning with Mark Antony's visit to Egypt, and him subsequently falling hard for the alluring and commanding Cleopatra, while ignoring pressing matters of state. A return to Rome finds Antony marrying Caesar's sister in a vain attempt to smooth over political problems that have festered during his absence. But, despite his gesture, war breaks out between the pair. Cleopatra is understandably upset by the news of Antony's marriage, and yet she makes the decision to lead the Egyptian fleet into battle against Caesar. At least, until she changes her mind and retreats, taking her boats along with her in the process. Eventually, Antony returns to her side, but only after fatally wounding himself when false word reaches him that she has died. The poisonous bite of an asp finally brings the star-crossed lovers together again, if only in death.

Shirine Babb is marvelous as Cleopatra, utilizing impeccable diction and phrasing to bring this resplendent and captivating character to life. Babb commands the stage with her presence, and every moment she treads the boards you can't help but be beguiled by her, even though her character's histrionics can sometimes be a bit much to bear. Jay Stratton is strong, sturdy, and perfectly suitable as the object of her affections. He's torn by his love for her, and the sense of duty he feels toward Rome. Charles Pasternak is properly imperious as Octavius Caesar, and Michael James Reed is very good as Agrippa, the admiral of the Roman Naval. Gary Glasgow does fine work as Lepidus, one of the triumvirate of Rome's leaders, and Raina Karianne Houston makes an impression as Octavia. Conan McCarty does a splendid job as Enobarbus, who foresees where this tragic love is headed, and the effect it will have on matters back home.

Mike Donahue's direction is uneven, and until the stirring and startling beginning of the second act, the play seems much too loquacious and static. But, he does manage to pull forth some fine work from his troupe, and that's certainly commendable. Part of the problem is the very nature of a great deal of Shakespeare's work, which often relies heavily on descriptions of battles that have occurred, when some actual activity might make the proceedings much more engaging. Scott C. Neale's scenic design is another matter entirely, making brilliant use of various levels, and a number of plinths to set the scene, and it's all masterfully lit by John Wylie. Rusty Wandall's sound design is enhanced by Greg Mackender's compositions, and Dorothy Marshall Englis provides the regal costumes that sparkle in the moonlight.

Even a slightly flawed Shakespearean work is worth the price of admission, and the true beauty of this production is that it's free for all to see. Shakespeare Festival St. Louis has provided another memorable evening's entertainment with their presentation of Antony and Cleopatra. It continues through June 14, 2015. Make sure to catch this slice of history with your family in tow.

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From This Author Chris Gibson