The Bard’s most tragic love story; not Romeo & Juliet as so many are inclined to think, but rather a tale of epic love that transcends even death itself. War, camaraderie, and one beautiful Egyptian Queen whose continence rivals Helen herself; all that set against the Caribbean Islands with cast-wide sing-a-longs is what you’ll find as the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company opens up their summer season with Antony & Cleopatra; the first of two in their summertime repertory. Directed by Ralph Alan Cohen, this legendary tale is made accessible to the masses set against the magnificent ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park; an enchanting evening of mesmerizing drama that you won’t want to miss this summer.
Costume Designer Marilyn Johnson brings the subtle hints of tropical island life to fruition in the casts’ outfits with shirts of various lively colors and prints. The soldiers, be they loyal to Antony or Caesar, don sandy colored khaki uniforms and everyone in the servitude rankings wears the soft cotton head covering reminiscent of those out in the bright suns of the island sands. Johnson’s finest work is displayed in the gowns for Cleopatra and her two female attendants. Warm summery flowing dresses in shades of tropical sunset pink and purple are saved for the hand maidens and a crimson dress as sultry as the day is long reserved for the Queen. Even when Cleopatra opts for a more demure look the pearly peach gown is still stunning and fits her figure to perfection; the true mark of the most powerful woman in the world for her time.
One does not expect to often find music spliced into the workings of Shakespeare, but Musical Director Scott Farquhar unites the visions of the story with those of Director Ralph Alan Cohen, seamlessly blending appropriately modern songs into the works that allow for additional audience enjoyment as well as participation. During the drunken pirate scene and peace treaty the entire cast is making merry, singing “Red Red Wine” and during the pause between Act’s II and III, “Be My Yoko Ono” a catchy pop culture song that befits the deeply rooted love of the title characters is lead by Lauren M. Davis and accompanied eagerly Kevin Costa on trumpet and James Jager on lute. A rousing good time is had by all who partake in the musical numbers of this production, particularly Jager, playing the court eunuch to Cleopatra, who is constantly strumming away on his lute and singing to please the Queen.
Director Ralph Alan Cohen has a masterful vision of Shakespeare’s work which he executes with flawless perfection. Not only does Cohen ensure that the actors can be physically heard, which is a feat in and of itself as they compete with the outdoor elements in the open air theatre, but he ensures that the emotions and intentions of the text translate clearly; making the major themes and plot points of the text accessible to the entire audience, even those without a vast knowledge or understanding of the vernacular. Cohen encourages voices that can be clearly understood without ever having to shout, unless of course the scene calls for it and where Antony is concerned this happens frequently, but much to the credit of his hot-headed nature.
Cohen keeps the show moving at a rapid pace so that the natural lulls in the text are never noticed. Scenes are cut tightly against one another, constantly moving from one moment to the next so that the audience’s attention never wanes. His most impressive feat is the way in which he constructs Cleopatra. A pillar of beauty that is bound by her emotional strength, sexual prowess, and overall god-like presence on the stage, Cohen works with actress Isabelle Anderson to perfect the notion of Egypt’s beloved queen and does so with a flare. Working together the pair grasp a true understanding of the character making for one epic performance.
There are no small parts, regardless of how seldom the actors and their characters are seen on the stage. The ensemble in this production works like a well oiled machine letting everyone shine in their moments. The swarthy Menas (Vince Eisenson) a pirate in the employ of Pompey (Eric Humphries) shines with his momentary villainy, making for a good burbling scene of tension against Enobarbus (Kevin Costa) a loyal friend and soldier of Antony. Costa is a well grounded player, be it at odds with the pirates or in the midst of friendly banter with Agrippa (Jeff Keogh). His final confessions are deeply moving and horrifically tragic, a full engagement of his body and his voice for such heavy emotional outbursts.
These moments of blasting tragedy and woeful discovery aren’t reserved for the soldier’s alone; the court eunuch (James Jager) gives a heartfelt tragic delivery when forced to render bad news to Antony late in the play; another example of perfection in expression despite the tangling words of Shakespeare’s time. The cast is simply chock full of incredible performances that would run the length of the play itself if there were time to exemplify them all.
Caesar (Patrick Kilpatrick) is a cunning and clever Roman General that sparks conflict wherever he goes, even without meaning to. Spoiled, and rather ill-tempered, Kilpatrick’s rendition of the antagonist really makes a jibe at the vast age difference between he and Antony. Knowing exactly how to spoil the mood, especially during the party scene onboard Pompey’s ship, Kilpatrick crafts the character in such a way that the audience can’t help but dislike him, even if it’s Antony and Cleopatra who are living in mortal sin. While never villainous, Kilpatrick makes Caesar disliked enough that you’re wishing against him for the entirety of the show.
Antony (Matt Radford Davies) is a force to be reckoned with. Not only in his strong appearance but his vocal prowess, among many other pleasant features. His true to nature’s British accent falls right in line with what is ideally Shakespearean and his stage presence is both commanding and enchanting in a masculine sense. You can nary take your eyes off him, especially in his moments of peak emotional expression, going above and beyond the call of duty to truly emote the plethora of emotions welling up from deep inside of him. Even in his fading moments he is every bit as fierce and present as he is during his moments of jubilant triumph. Davies unleashes a furious thunderous rage upon a servant during a scene late in the show that is so realistic it’s frightening.
Davies holds his own against the mighty Cleopatra (Isabelle Anderson). The constant waves of their relationship splashing out to the audience in both a comic and tragic fashion. When it’s good between them it’s oh so good; a passionate plea of hearts entwined radiating out through their voices and their bodies as they dance their intimate dance of compliments and love. But when their tempers spark it’s practically lethal; a violent tempest roiling to a head between them, particularly when Antony suspects her of treason. A more perfect match has yet to be made on the stage this summer, Davies and Anderson take the gold with their performance as history’s greatest lovers.
Anderson is the epitome of what every Cleopatra should strive to be. She’s an embodiment of the weather, constantly changing from volatile and tempestuous to sweet and smooth; a million emotions all wrapped up in one divine goddess, each showings its face at exactly the right moment. Anderson is every bit the goddess her character is painted up to be; her stance alone upon the stage commands respect and dignity, combing that with the way she issues forth confident commands and she is simply unstoppable. She exudes the physicality of a sensual woman with the rogue spirit of a warrior crossing her tongue; a complex enigma of femininity and power all churning forth into one enticing queen. Anderson delivers the character with a fierce emotional vehemence, even in more somber moments of deep tragedy the energy is full force. A sensationally phenomenal performance not to be missed; Anderson truly is the jewel of the Nile.
Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission, and one song.
Antony and Cleopatra plays in rotating repertory through July 14, 2013 at The Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park – 3655 Church Road in Ellicott City, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 331-8661, or purchase them online.