Maybe I was setting myself up for disappointment. Ever since I saw an excellent, intimate, pared-down production of Antony and Cleopatra at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2003, it has been my choice for "most underrated Shakespeare play." I preached the gospel of it to anyone who would listen. My senior-thesis play in college was a backstage drama about a production of A&C in the 1930s. And yet, in these seven years of loving Antony and Cleopatra, and developing some very strong opinions about it, I had never had the chance to see another production of it--it's so infrequently produced! I therefore was full of excited anticipation last Sunday, when a friend and I drove to Marin to see a matinée of Antony and Cleopatra at Marin Shakespeare.
But, you know, Marin Shakespeare is no Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and this production didn't stir me the way that the one I saw seven years ago did. In fact, it barely got a rise out of me, other than to make me revise my opinion of the script. I still think that Antony and Cleopatra is, on the whole, an underrated play. But I would now add that it is very tricky to pull off.
The Marin production just struck me as very superficial--unable to present the deeper resonances and contradictions of the story. Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra are both terribly, terribly flawed people who make fatal errors. In a sense, they are Too Dumb To Live, and Shakespeare includes a surprising amount of humor at their expense. But in another sense, when Antony and Cleopatra die, the poetry and beauty of the world is forever diminished. Octavius Caesar, who wins in the end, will certainly be a better leader than the irresponsible Antony. But he is a Roman bureaucrat; there is no romance in his soul. This mysterious, tragic dimension of the play was entirely missing from the Marin production; it was not clear that the world had lost something precious when the title characters died.
It has been said that Shakespeare's Cleopatra is "always acting." But that's not precisely correct. Cleopatra is indeed a highly theatrical, self-dramatizing character, and she probably puts on an act at least 95% of the time. But there has to be a few moments in the play where the mask drops and we see a different, more private Cleopatra: the tragic queen, not the jealous and lust-ridden woman. With Marcia Pizzo's Cleopatra, the mask never dropped. She certainly threw herself into the role with great energy, but she neglected to find the quiet, internal moments that would allow Cleopatra to break your heart.
In the playbill, director Lesley Schisgall Currier wrote of her decision to use "a mostly bare stage, and to trust that Shakespeare's words will evoke the glory of Rome and the glamor of Egypt." The trouble was that her direction seemed to expect the words to do all the work--and paid too little attention to things like narrative drive, taut pacing, and character through-lines. The result was a disjointed play, which is fatal, because Antony and Cleopatra is made up of a ton of short scenes. Also, the intermission came too early (1 hour into a 3-hour show). And, with a 17-person cast plus supernumeraries, why did all of the battle scenes have to take place offstage? Is it too much to ask to have a couple of guys run on and clash swords a few times?
Was anything noteworthy about this Antony and Cleopatra? Well, I thought William Ellsman was good in the role of Octavius Caesar; this character can easily come across as a boring stick-in-the-mud, but Ellsman somehow made him more interesting than that. And Cleopatra's peacock-feather skirt in her final scene was pretty eye-catching (I was reminded of the legendary "beetle" dress Ellen Terry wore to play Lady Macbeth).
Because Antony and Cleopatra is so infrequently done, I guess that's why I'm so annoyed to see a dull production of it. Yes, Shakespeare wrote a strong and complex play. But this production proves it's not foolproof: it needs direction that can tease out the script's deeper layers, make sense of its epic structure, and lead us to a heightened appreciation of Shakespeare's infinite variety.
Photo credits: Morgan Cowin.