Saturday, October 23, 2021

Unhappy alliance: Bard Fest's 'Antony and Cleopatra' focuses on dysfunctional love at the highest level

Cleopatra in a moment of tender devotion to Antony

Trimming Shakespeare, a customary practice, works toward producing a playable reduction of the original, sensitive to modern attention spans and the wish to privilege dramatic flow above all. Casting may force the combination of some minor roles, the elimination of others. 

It's also a way of putting a director's vision  of the play in the foreground. Ryan T. Shelton, who directed the Improbable Fiction Theater Company's production of "Antony and Cleopatra" for the 2021 Indy Bard Fest, says in a program note that "the idea of romance" took precedence. Several performances remain in the schedule at the Cat Theatre in Carmel.

It's hard to imagine a version of this unique tragedy that didn't privilege the romance between the title characters, but what becomes of secondary interest in this show is the political matter of Roman imperial security after the assassination of Julius Caesar. The triumvirate that emerges after civil war is destabilized by one of its members' infatuation with Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt. The flow and ebb of that relationship is in a sense all we need to know about what happens.

And where power politics is involved, as we've learned down the ages up until today, developments are peculiarly resistant to human control. Fortune takes charge — a force in Shakespeare hardly ever in the hands of the Christian God, and not applicable in the world of ancient Rome, perhaps much to the playwright's relief. Accordingly, in this production, the gossip about the romance that sets all the action in motion is trimmed out of the first act, which opens with a soothsayer's visit to Cleopatra's court.

As Cleopatra's attendant Charmian indicates, the fun of predicting the future and throwing all one's fondest hopes forward is how people prefer to address the determining role of Fortune. And that scene comes to mind again when Marc Antony, in serious decline as warrior and leader, ends this production's first act by saying: "Fortune knows we scorn her most when most she offers blows."

Never something to put faith in, Fortune bends the way the adulterous misalliance of Antony and Cleopatra surges and falls apart. Seen  Friday night, the first and last scene of the first act frame the dramatic situation impressively. When the romance then is reduced to embers along with the political ambitions of its protagonists, the survivor Cleopatra sets this seal on what her lover has said about Fortune and its reductive effect: "We have no friend but resolution and the briefest end."

The process was traced with great energy in the performance I saw. The intensity of Afton Shephard's Cleopatra and Darin Richart's Antony rose sometimes to frantic heights.  The words, though mastered in the abstract, needed more clarity in the major roles. Great waves of emotion swept over the action whenever Shephard and Richart were onstage. That produced a unity of effect, but with some smudging of particulars. A note of wonder, for instance, on the void Antony's death has left for Cleopatra, might have worked better than a sobbing delivery of her "And there is nothing left remarkable beneath the visiting moon."

Words had that deliberate clarity more consistently in Thomas Sebald's portrayal of Octavius Caesar, the triumvir who ends up triumphant. But then, the role calls for the uncompromised view that Sebald delivered. A political animal has advantages in matters of power that divided temperaments can never command. Fittingly, the actor gave special weight to pauses in Caesar's speeches that the production needed.

Richart registered the enormity of Antony's realization of his losses in battle through a fatal lack of good judgment. But if his Antony had recalled what made him great in the eyes of his countrymen (episodes depicted in "Julius Caesar") in something other than shouting, the devastation he feels might have made more impact. Antony's inevitable pathos tends to overcome even a full-fledged interpretation.

Furious Cleopatra makes a messenger regret his duty.

Aptly costumed at each stage, Shephard was very explicit in tracing the transformation of Cleopatra from girlish novice in the affairs of state through her warrior pretensions to something approaching wisdom as she nears the end.  Her teenage giggling as she tells her women that Antony likes to call her "his serpent of old Nile" was a nice touch.

Cleopatra's temperamental exercise of absolute power (while she still had it) was volcanic: the queen does not like any hint of bad news, and messengers suffer accordingly. But there is more to her than anger-management issues. There were aspects of Shephard's performance that movingly reminded me why Cleopatra is sometimes considered Shakespeare's greatest female role. 

Supporting and minor roles were serviceably filled, with Craig Kemp's Soothsayer standing out, particularly when the actor also played a justifiably nervous, abused messenger and, finally, the rustic purveyor of the asp the queen has ordered for her exit. The director understandably would like the audience  to see that Kemp is doing more than playing several small roles; he's also continuing as the Soothsayer in all of them. Anticipatory peering into the whims of Fortune is a vocation for all of humanity: That may be the lesson this "Antony and Cleopatra" offers within the storms of its legendary, world-shaking romance.

[Photos by Rob Slaven]

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