Antony and Cleopatra – Asp and You Shall Receive
A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE
For every time I find Baltimore Shakespeare Factory a little stodgy, a bit “stick-in-the-mud” with their stubborn traditionalism, there is another when I find it completely charming. Anthony & Cleopatra falls neatly into this second category, for the most part. It doesn’t show the same moxy as last year’s Julius Caesar (which reached for a much more coherent and exciting concept) but director Thomas Delise and Assistant Director Jonas David Grey give as an A & C that seems to be inspired as much by the origin of the modern conception of “Egypt” as it is by Shakespeare’s intention. King Tut’s tomb was opened in 1923, sparking a kind of “Egyptmania” that we still associate, for better or worse, with the country. Interestingly, the discovery also provided the kick for a lot of twenties fashion and architecture (kohl-lined eyes, especially). This show could have been lifted directly from 1923, except for the addition of “Original Pronunciation,” an accent that was in common usage in Shakespeare’s time.
I happen to have a huge soft spot for this play, because it heavily involves two things I enjoy: a truly fierce bitch and a lot of passion. Antony and Cleopatra is about kingdoms brought down because of unbridled lust and true love, and what’s fucking sexier than that? The plot flip-flops between Egypt and Rome a billion times, but Delise and Grey don’t waste too much time with these transitions, trusting that we’ll follow along more or less, and we do. The Great Mark Antony (Chris Cotterman) is supposed to be one of the rulers of Rome, but what he is actually finding a whole lot more interesting is fucking Cleopatra (Valerie Dowdle, whose country of origin here is Liz Taylor), the queen of Egypt. This is pissing off his fellows back in Europe, especially Caesar (Troy Jennings). Antony’s wife kicks the bucket, and he heads back to deal with that and with some pirates, also. There’s war, and bad decision-making on Antony’s part, particularly when it comes to Cleo’s idea that they should attack from the sea. He decides that she’s betrayed him to Caesar, and threatens to kill her, so she runs away and locks herself in a monument. They try to kill themselves for awhile, and eventually manage to succeed, which is grand and sighingly sad.
Valerie Dowdle sneeringly plays the queen, and she does play it, throwing herself around on giant pillows in a mess of contradictions, tantrums, and deadly whims, and man, is it glorious. She wouldn’t be out of place in a telenovela, and that’s exactly as it should be. Shakespeare generally didn’t bother wasting time on writing complex women (why would he, when they were played by boys and not his stable of fine actors) but in this case, he penned a fucking goddess and Dowdle is not about to throw away her shot. It takes a lot to stand up to her, and Chris Cotterman must be commended for taking on the challenge as Antony. Cotterman plays the consummate warrior to the hilt, hitting those bloody, savage lines like: Come, then; for with a wound I must be cured/Draw that thy honest sword, which thou hast worn /Most useful for thy country with commitment and vigor. I totally believed him as a solider, what I would have liked is if he had let us in a little more to the lover. This is a man made helpless, and worse, stupid, by love, and I almost saw it, but not quite. Perhaps Delise and Grey needed to turn up the heat in the staging or maybe Cotterman and Dowdle didn’t 100% bring the chemistry I was looking for but it was a hair off dead center.
The supporting cast (and trust, they are all supporting to Dowdle) is exceptionally solid, especially as they’re playing eighty parts a goddamned piece. There is a truly beautiful pas de deux between Isa Guitan’s Iras and Bethany Mayo’s Charmina, handmaids to the queen. These two work together flawlessly, effortlessly, as if they have really been friends forever. I love how they interact with Dowdle, the way their words fly back and forth intimating a thousand inside jokes. They are the only ones who aren’t afraid of the queen, not really (there’s a great scene where they made some “suggestions” to a weary slave in terms of how to approach the monarch on the subject of Antony’s new wife). I’d watch a whole show about their stories, if I’m being honest. Kerry Brady is nicely stoic and brave as Octavia, Caesar’s sister, who marries Antony as a show of unity and suffers from there on out. Emily Classen is regal/grouchy as Lepidus and Troy Jennings understandably impatient as Caesar. Jessica Behar’s effervescent personality shows through in her several small parts, which bring levity to some heavy scenes, particularly near the end. And I quite liked David Forrer, who shows some quick change range, sailing from a timid Soothsayer to the honorable Pompey with ease.
Tech is, as always, minimal with BSF, no lighting or sound to speak of. Costumes (April Forrer), like I mentioned, are sheer Egypt-of-the-imagination, particularly the ever-changing jewelry of Cleopatra (I really liked that at the end, after she is conquered by Caesar, she comes to him without any ornament on, in a simple white shift). They got close to bagged last minute Halloween a couple of times, but never sailed over that edge. I liked the color coded sashes that really helped to differentiate the locations, at least for me, because I’m kind of dumb.
BOTTOM LINE: While Antony and Cleopatra isn’t as imaginative as some Shakespeare I’ve seen of late, the traditional approach is still pleasing, and it’s fucking cool to listen to, thanks to the “OP” dialect on display. Chemistry between the leads could have been dialed up, but there are some fine individual performances, particularly Valerie Dowdle as the titular queen. Wayyyy worth seeing in its final weekend.
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