Antony and Cleopatra is tougher to parse than Shakespeare’s best known tragedies. A feud defines Romeo and Juliet, while jealousy defines Othello, and so on. Antony and Cleopatra’s affair starts off strained, for one thing, and most of the action – including two naval battles – takes place off-stage. The solution behind Folger’s recent, stripped-down production of Antony and Cleopatra is to make their tragedy one of folly, bordering on incompetence: the refrain “lover, not a fighter” certain applies to Antony, while Cleopatra has the regret of someone who realizes their partner means much more than they’d dare admit. Coupled with some shrewd ways of staging the play, director Robert Richmond’s production should appeal to more than the usual Shakespeare nuts.
Those who have attended a performance at The Folger may not recognize the new stage. Instead of a thrust stage – one where most of stage juts forward, with seats on three sides – scenic designer Tony Cisek envisions a theater-in-the-round. Seats surround the stage, in the space where one normally finds seats, with a triangle inscribing a circle in the middle. This triangle is an abstracted metaphor for the pyramids of Egypt, and the space around the circle give a way for characters to wordlessly observe the other. When the play starts, Mark Antony (Cody Nickell) and Cleopatra (Shirine Babb) are in the languid throes of love. Antony has been ignoring his duties to Rome, and Octavius Caesar (Dylan Paul) implores his return after another military threat. In an effort to consolidate power, Antony marries Caesar’s sister Octavia (Nicole King), and the news sends Cleopatra into a tailspin.
The first of the play takes a little to get going, and that’s because of how Shakespeare frames the story. There is palace intrigue, plus a multi-fronted war across two continents, to say nothing of dialogue that requires constant concentration. Richmond overcomes this problem through the chemistry between Nickell and Babb: their passion is physical, with the lovers in each other’s arms, so their time apart is when they both realize their love cuts deep. Paul has a thankless task: Octavius is a prig, the sort who needles his superior through humorless nagging. Still, it’s a testament to Paul’s performance that Octavius finally gets through to Antony, who eschews leadership in favor of laziness.
Admittedly, this is my first time seeing Antony and Cleopatra, but I found it admirable that they made Antony so unlikable. He is a fool who waves off his obligations, even to his lover Cleopatra – even the news of his dead wife is met with borderline indifference. The supporting actors, notably Chris Genebach as Agrippa and Nigel Gore as Enobarbus, only deepen Antony’s flaws since they’re so shrewd and square-jawed. The final minutes, where Antony resorts to half-hearted suicide, unfolds like a tantrum alongside genuine desperation. Cleopatra, on the other hand, is far more assured. Some of the most entertaining scenes involve her servants Charmian (Simone Elizabeth Bart) and Mardian (John Floyd) because they strike a balance between being obedient and shrewd observers of their master.
If the minutiae of Roman/Egypt relations and declarations of love get too dense, Richmond’s production embellishes Antony and Cleoptra with some elegant visual metaphors. There is a scene where Cleopatra lays on the center triangle, surrounded by Roman soldiers, which create a physical metaphor for the patriarchy in which she finds herself. There are also some fun choreographed sequences, symbolizing Antony’s defeats on the battlefield. The productions at Folger are always minimalist, with focusing on a strong show instead of a production that does Shakespeare justice. Antony and Cleopatra is like that, with the welcome detail of a glib, hedonistic leader who would rather go on holiday than run a country – to the chagrin of his underlings. Now doesn’t that sound familiar?