On our way to the Guthrie's mainstage production of "Antony and Cleopatra", I asked my companion if she was familiar with the story, and she said, "Yeah yeah. Guy gets seduced by sexy queen and loses empire. The danger of feminine wiles." This is generally how the story is summarized, and the big question posed by each individual production is usually whether Cleopatra is a mere enchantress, or if she actually feels emotion under the veil of those feminine wiles.
So I was somewhat surprised when, despite more or less traditional, historically accurate costumes (Jane Greenwood) and sets (Ming Cho Lee), this Cleopatra (Laila Robins) did not appear particularly conniving, enchanting, or even sexy. Indeed, in the scene where Cleopatra interrogates a messenger about the woman Antony has recently married (the best scene in the play; Robins' comic timing is perfect, not to mention of Paris Remillard's presence in the role of the messenger), Cleopatra betrays a worry about being past her physical prime. And while she does manipulate the characters around her, she comes off not as a scheming strategist but as a self-obsessed woman with the moody temperment of a melodramatic teenager.
This interpretation of Cleopatra's character, though it surprised me, worked well for the first half of the play. I kept trying to pin her down to some other archetypal character, catching a whiff of A Streecar Named Desire's Blanche Dubois at one point when the queen called for music ("meeewwsic"), but I finally decided she reminded me of Madonna in the documentary Truth or Dare: attention starved, pushy, whiny, and power hungry. She was clearly the audience's favorite presence onstage, and she frequently had us in hysterics; but once the comedic tone had been established, it was difficult to turn the play towards the tragic. Cleopatra's misery wasn't nearly as much fun as her temper tantrums, and I could feel the audience craving a less emotional, craftier queen.
Part of the difficulty was Robert Cuccioli's performance as Mark Antony, the character through whom most of the play's conflicts are played out: love versus duty, east versus west, pleasure versus labor. Cuccioli delivers all of his lines with a kind of overblown, superhuman masculinity. After a while, he started to remind me of that ultimate superhero parody: The Tick. If he had contrasted this persona with something more gentle and genuine in his scenes with Cleopatra, it might have worked, but his performance is unrelentingly monotoned, and Mark Antony becomes a stuffed suit of armor.
As a result, it's difficult to believe in the love between the main characters, and it's difficult to sympathize when Mark Antony dies. But as the play drew to a close, I started to wonder if that was part of the point. There are several moments in the play when the characters' descriptions of their world are clearly exaggerations of reality. When Enobarbus (wonderfully played by Stephen Yoakam) describes the first time he saw Cleopatra, the images drawn by his words are dazzlingly beautiful, especially when compared to the petty, moody queen the audience has actually seen. And later, after Mark Antony's death, several characters mourn his passing with words the audience can't begin to understand. "A rarer spirit never did steer humanity." Are they talking about the same man we've been watching?
The emphasis of this production seems to be on the reality of Antony and Cleopatra, as opposed to the myth: a theme which does occur in the text of the play. In her final scene, Cleopatra wonders what plays will be made of her life, worrying that she'll be portrayed as a whore, but after her suicide one of her servants adjusts her crown and the death scene is picture perfect. Finding her dead on the throne, Octavius Caesar (in a nuanced performance by Leith Burke, who manages to make a somewhat flat character quite interesting) announces that she should be buried with Mark Antony. "No grave upon Earth shall clip in it a pair so famous."
This announcement, and its mention of fame, suggests a possible meaning for one mysterious aspect of the set design. At the beginning of the play, a gigantic, white, seemingly ceramic face stares out at the audience only to be hoisted up above the stage and tilted downwards, in the posture of a watchful god. At the end of the play, the face descends again and stares out at us. Perhaps it should remind us of our own status as spectators; remind us that we, the spectators, have made these people into myths, when they had been unremarkable mortals. The end result is interesting, if not fully satisfying.
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