How might the romance of “Romeo and Juliet” play out if, instead of wet-behind-the-ears adolescents, the lovers were powerful middle aged leaders?
In “Antony and Cleopatra,” Shakespeare explores this idea, among many other complex themes. The story of the middle aged lovers, swept away from sense and responsibility by the force of their passion, offers an extraordinary opportunity for actors of a certain age, and one of the finest female characters ever created for the English-speaking theatre.
With high-caliber classical actors like L. Peter Callender as Mark Antony and the exceptional Leontyne Mbele-Mbong as Cleopatra, directed by the reputable Jon Tracy, one might expect an outstanding theatrical experience. Alas, to quote another great poet, “the best laid plans of mice and men [and theatre companies] go aft agly.”
On opening night, when Cleopatra discovers that her beloved Antony has killed himself, believing that she was dead (remember Romeo and Juliet), the audience responded with surprised laughter, and continued to giggle in the scene that followed. Surprise often produces laughter, but I don’t think laughter was the sought-after response of either Shakespeare or this company. Something had gone wrong.
Well, Antony and Cleopatra is a notoriously difficult play to stage, with the necessity of describing a complex war and political intrigue, as well as a delicate love story. In the present production, the war is not well-described — indeed, the details of the action are very confusing and unclear, and it may be that by the time the play’s denouement arrived, the audience was relieved to be startled and surprised, rather than confused, and thus the inappropriate laugh.
Director Tracy has sought to make the play seem contemporary with modern clothes and gangster stylings by some of the military leaders, but this seems to create more murk than light. The set, which looks like the storage area of an Office Depot, consists of metal shelves loaded with filing boxes, perhaps intended to suggest the sort of power associated with a successful business. It seems, however, to serve little purpose other than to allow L. Peter Callender, as Antony, to occasionally smash some metal shelving to the floor and create a big boom. This noisiness is a poor substitute for narrative excitement.
In spite of these difficulties, it is impossible for actors of the caliber of Callender and Mbele-Mbong to fail completely, and some of their love scenes are quite moving, as Shakespearean love scenes ought to be.
Still, one must conclude that this production, in the end, is a well-meaning misfire.
“Antony and Cleopatra” plays at the African American Shakespeare Company through May 29, 2016. For further information click here.
“Antony and Cleopatra” by William Shakespeare. Produced by African American Shakespeare Company. Director: Jon Tracy. Set and Lighting Designer: Jon Tracy. Technical Director and Sound Designer: Kevin Myrick. Costume Designer: Maggie Whitaker. Prop Artisan: Brittany White. Fight Choreographer: Duran Garcia.
Mark Antony: L. Peter Callendar. Cleopatra: Leontine Mbele-Mbong. Octavius: Steve Ortiz. Enobarbus: Timothy Redmond. Ensemble: Edward Neville Ewell + Indiia Wilmott.