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Antony and Cleopatra

by William Shakespeare

COMPANY : The New American Shakespeare Tavern [WEBSITE]
VENUE : The New American Shakespeare Tavern [WEBSITE]
ID# 3187

SHOWING : October 04, 2008 - November 02, 2008



The Tides of History are turning, and an empire will rise. All that's needed is an ashheap to provide an incubator for this Phoenix of Rome to rise. Will the fiery passions of Mark Antony and Queen Cleopatra of Egypt burn on, or will it flame out and crumble to dust?

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Cleopatra is a royal pain in the asp.
by OctoberSundance
Saturday, October 18, 2008
"No grave upon this earth shall clip in it / A pair more famous." -- Act V, Scene II

It's hard to think of Cleopatra without envisioning Liz Taylor's elaborate costumes and stolid acting in the film that virtually bankrupted 20th Century Fox, but that doesn't seem to faze Joanna Daniel. As half the title of William Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra," playing through November 2 at the New American Shakespeare Tavern, Daniel is tastefully over-the-top, imbuing the coquettish queen with a fervor scarcely contained by the bare-bones set. Her powerful performance is top-notch, effortlessly conveying all of Cleopatra's complexities with none of the 1960s Hollywood schmaltz.

How unfortunate, then, that such a meaty female role is weighed down by the surrounding confusion. With a near-eternal running time -- long enough for two intermissions -- and approximately six thousand characters, "Antony and Cleopatra" has a tendency to snake along as lazily as the Nile. Sure, it contains all of our favorite Shakespearean elements -- undying love, battle, suicide, a trio of eunuchs somehow managing to get busy with the servants -- but the play takes a good half-hour to get going and never quite achieves the energy and verve that usually define the First Folio. (But opening the show with the aforementioned eunuch/servant action immediately engages the audience in a way that Elizabethan dialog cannot.)

Still, the actors, in true Tavern fashion, give their all. Daniel is engrossing and royally bitchy, mercilessly bulldozing anyone who gets in Cleopatra's way; a running gag involving a marble-eyed messenger's (Matt Felten) fear of bringing bad news to Egypt is very funny. Jeff Watkins' portrayal of Marc Antony, while slightly less memorable, is also stellar and sweeps the full range of emotions experienced by a man torn between his country and his true love. Antony's fellow triumvirs, Octavius Caesar (J.C. Long) and Lepidus (Doug Kaye), are strong and complex roles, and both actors rise to the challenge, particularly Long, whose Caesar seems entirely power-hungry and cruel, yet displays a softer side when offering Antony the hand of his sister Octavia (Anna Gorman). Other standouts include relative Tavern newcomer Tiffany Porter as Cleopatra's trusted attendant Charmian, and Felten, who reappears late in the show as Eros, a confidant to Antony who makes the ultimate sacrifice for his beloved friend.

When nearly every performer in a play has multiple roles, audience confusion is likely to follow, and "Antony & Cleopatra" is no exception. Most of the time, it's relatively easy to discern the changes in character (although this reviewer somehow kept mistaking Antony for Enobarbus, played by Maurice Ralston; maybe it had something to do with seeing Watkins with all that hair). But slapping two wigs on Gorman to differentiate between her flat Octavia and flatter Seleucus isn't quite effective enough to be believed.

However, many of the actors juggle two, three or even four roles with ease, including several members of this year's Apprentice Company, who are making their Tavern debuts with "Antony and Cleopatra." True, there is a vast difference in skill and confidence between them and the Tavern regulars, such as Long, Ralston and the always superb Tony Brown, this time playing attendant Alexas and messenger Proculeus. But it'll be fun to watch the newbies grow and come into their own over the course of the season.

Ultimately, "Antony and Cleopatra" is about the choices and sacrifices that two lovers must make when painful coercive forces come between them. The casting of Watkins and Daniel is pitch-perfect (in part because the real titular characters were roughly 53 and 39, respectively, when they died), and the play is worth seeing for the performances alone. From a rollicking meeting between the triumvirs and their rival Pompey (Joshua Lee Jones), which can only be described as a precursor to the modern frat party, to Cleopatra's death in her mausoleum (the use of a real snake is a nice touch), it's clear that the actors are in their Shakespearean elements and, at times, it's impossible to not be moved by their joy, sorrow and passion. Just be sure to have a cup of coffee on hand for the moments where the action starts to sag. [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]
Where's the Heat?
by Dedalus
Friday, October 17, 2008
It’s been almost five years since I last ventured forth to the Shakespeare Tavern (their last monumental History Spectacular Undertaking). I’ve usually found productions there run the gamut from the outstanding to the not-so-outstanding, with the good stuff by far outnumbering the not-so-good. Their strengths are a facility with the language with an ability to make it clear to the audience, a flair for playing to the house (a definite asset with the comedies), and an evident love of the material. Their flaws can be almost the same list – emphasis of the text over the subtext, museum-pure interpretations that can undercut the meaning for a contemporary audience, static “find my place and declaim” blocking, and an occasional under-rehearsed feel (“I’m off book, now what?”).

The current production of “Antony and Cleopatra” falls squarely in the middle of this spectrum. The three leads have some outstanding individual moments, the language comes across in all its glorious beauty and ambiguity, there are some wonderful moments of characterization by the repertory of multiple-role-playing support cast, and the costuming and look of the production is well-designed and executed. But, for me, it didn’t really gel as a whole. I felt the cast was more intent on playing to the audience rather than to each other, which gave the production a dry and passionless classroom feel. In addition, an ill-conceived second intermission was placed right where the plot needed to build steam. And, in what was an almost fatal flaw, I felt no sexual energy between leads Jeff Watkins and Joanna Daniel. I did not believe these two were even attracted to each other, let alone riding the crest of a passion that would wash over history.

For me, the standout performance in this production is J.C. Long’s Octavius Caesar. Much like the characterization we saw in last year’s HBO “Rome” mini-series, Mr. Long gives us an Octavian who is cold, passionless, calculating, and ambitious. More to the point, he is every inch the emperor-to-be, commanding the stage with every entrance, every move, and every word. The declamatory style I find so irritating in other scenes, other characters, was perfectly suited to him – he did not need to interact with anyone, because he was above them all. This is Octavian’s world, and if those around him can’t keep up, they’ll be left behind, and should be.

Of course, the problem here is that this isn’t his play, it’s Antony and Cleopatra’s. To be sure, Mr. Watkins’s and Ms. Daniel have some very fine individual moments. Ms. Daniel especially is very good at showing us a woman who is aware of her appeal, who is well-practiced in the arts of manipulation and command. One of the nicer contrasts we see is an early scene where she comes across as “high maintenance,” with an over-the-top outrageousness that is funny, appalling, and appealing, all at the same time. Later, when she’s no longer in control and at the mercy of those who have defeated her, these same sorts of behavior come across as the proud posturings of a woman who will never let herself be beaten.

At the start, Mr. Watkins shows us the Antony he could have been. Commanding the stage in the first half as a Roman General should, he matches Cleopatra rant for rant, and made me believe he could rule a kingdom. More than Ms. Daniel, though, Mr. Watkins loses this quality as the play continues. In the battle scenes, he comes across as petulant and out-of-depth. And, when we come to his fateful end, Mr. Watkins gives rein to some uncharacteristic mugging, which causes inappropriate laughter when our attention needs to be spellbound.

Of the supporting cast, Tavern regulars Tony Brown and Doug Kaye give their expected sharp characterizations in around eight different roles, and Maurice Ralston adds his usual spark to Antony’s friend Enobarbus (though the character’s place in the story and his ultimate fate remain a tad unclear). I also have to give a “well done” to Matthew Felten, who gives dimension to his servant character at the mercy of Cleopatra’s tempestuous mood swings, as well as to Antony’s friend Eros. If I found Cleopatra’s servant Charmian bland and “by-the-numbers,” she was never less than competent. Some of the others were, though, and never moved beyond that “just off book” under-rehearsed quality.

But, the thing I found most disappointing here was the lack of heat between Mr. Watkins and Ms. Daniel. The play is really about their passion, about the adolescent longing that finds its way into the hearts and minds of these two mature “grown-ups.” I’ve always seen “Antony and Cleopatra” as a compelling portrait of how two larger-than-life characters are reduced to a desperate clinging to this passionate tidal wave that neither ever felt in their youth. For me, the historical events, the politics, were always a bit murky and arbitrary, and existed only as a device to bring them to tragedy.

Here, though, there was nothing. They rarely embraced, rarely “let themselves go,” rarely even looked at each other. The mechanics of the plot just seemed to plod around them without this driving force, and when others talked about their “passion,” it was difficult to believe. The production left me with the impression that their relationship was just another political liaison, a means for each to achieve their ambitions. It was never a whirlwind descent into the madness that leads to the sacrifice of family and kingdom for that one last kiss.

And, without that whirlwind, we’re left with only a long, well-recited evening of Shakespearean Verse and dry historical re-enactment.

Sometimes that’s enough. But, here, I expected (and wanted) more. I wanted to be swept away into a dizzying world in which the confusing winds of history are just not relevant.

For that to happen, the leads will need to lose some control, will need to turn up the heat. For now, though, it’s pretty chilly along the Nile.

-- Brad Rudy (



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