Review: ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ at Brave Spirits Theatre

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Love is a battlefield in the vivid, high heat of Brave Spirits Theatre’s striking, fencing-match take on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Once again Brave Spirits (BST) is true to its mission; bringing forth an ambitious, beautifully wrought, and passionate production of a classic play.

Joe Carlson (Antony) and Jessica Lekfow (Cleopatra). Photo by Claire Kimball.
Joe Carlson (Antony) and Jessica Lekfow (Cleopatra). Photo by Claire Kimball.

Under Charlene V. Smith’s dandy molding, Antony and Cleopatra is full of sparks about a pair of legendary lovers who become authentic people chained to each other; trapped in love and passion, even as a more brutal “manly” world impinges on them.

With a production full of standout performances from the leads to a first-rate ensemble including those who speak only a few lines, but remain in the moment, the audience finds itself face-to-face with actors who aim to and succeed in transfixing.

The production is led by the snarling grand work of Joe Carlson (Antony) and the radiant dazzle of BST Artistic Associate Jessica Lefkow as the two legendary lovers torn between their passions for each other and their duties to their countries. Carlson and Lefkow provide a tightly wound emotional core to their performance and the production itself. The audience comes to care about them and how things will progress

Throughout the production, as Cleopatra and Antony, Lefkow and Carslon circle each other, flirt, and tease in a power exchange based upon their inability and unwillingness to unlock one another from the leash they each hold on the other. They clearly come at their power over the other differently.

As Antony, Carlson is all manly strut and unswervingly direct in his foreplay whether as a lover or as a courageous military leader. He goes after what he wants, there is no holding him back even if he has qualms. As Cleopatra, Lefkow uses more indirect methods but no less powerful to try to obtain what she wants whether for herself, her country or her family. But each wonders both out-loud and in words to themselves, if the other will love them when they are no longer young and beautiful or powerful and full of stiff sinew. There is a wondrous deep mature manner in the characterizations that Carlson and Lefkow put forth. They are not cloying or pretty characterizations that will quickly fade.

If you are less familiar with Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, a short synopsis. It is after the fall of Casear as head of the Roman Empire. Antony has been spending his days in Egypt with his life’s love, that country’s legendary queen, Cleopatra. He is one of the three rulers of the Roman Empire, but living in a little decadent world of passion for Cleopatra that comes undone when he learns not only that his wife has died, a rebel in Rome is eminent. From this beginning, the play follows the machinations of wobbly alliances built on quicksand, opportunism and arranged marriages along with great courage and the sinews of battles as the predictions of a soothsayer about the future of the known world. All meaty stuff.

And always there are Antony and Cleopatra trying to make it through the raging storms of the world politics of their times, as the audience wonders but how their love for one another will affect their decision-making.

The ensemble that surrounds Lefkow and Carlson bring their own unmistakable imprint to the production. In roles that struck me are those by Octavius Caesar, and Brendan McMahon who grows more and more nature before the audience in the way he intones words and stands.

Darren Marquardt as the doomed, once powerful, Lepidus is a great font of hand and facial mannerism befitting a man others think expendable and then discard when his value to them is up. Madeline Burrows as the rebellious Pompey has a strut and don’t mess with me attitude. She has a confident air about her and clearly enjoys it.

John Stange provides deeply nuanced, flavorsome portrayals of several characters, including the ill-fated confidant of Antony, Enobarbus, as men of conscious caught up in other’s intrigues. When Stange speaks his lines, there is a pungent humanity to them. They are not lines of an actor, but of an individual offering up real pain, real confusion.

Hilary Kelly (Menas) and John Stange (Enobarbus). Photo by Claire Kimball.
Hilary Kelly (Menas) and John Stange (Enobarbus). Photo by Claire Kimball.

Now, this Brave Spirits production is done in what some may see as an unlikely location – a small repurposed building near a suburban church on the borderline between Arlington’s Fairlington and Alexandria’s Parkfairfax. Don’t be put off, for inside that non-descript building is all the theater magic you could ever want.

Set Designer Eric McMorris and Lighting Designer Jason Aufem Brinke have transformed four walls into intimate bedrooms and bold sea battles. Scenes changes are accomplished with percussive drum beats (Madeline Burrows who also plays Pompey) or the tingle of chimes.

Music Director Zach Roberts gives the audiences preshow and intermission music of a contemporary nature that whets the appetite and singles what may come. (Do think the soundtrack from The Great Gatsby as a guide, another tale of love with major pain and loss).

Several nifty fight scenes were choreographed by Joe Carlson, so that sword play and battle are depicted in a truly well-deserved breathless quality in such a small space. Costume Designer Melissa Huggins used simple black tops and slacks covered with more colorful tunics, jackets and skirts for Cleopatra that say all the audience needs about class, gender and power.

Brave Spirits’ Antony and Cleopatra gives off the scent of those who want to live one more time before they die. The production gets my praise as it pulls the audience in to become a child of ‘the times’ being depicted. This is no ‘fluttering hands,’ ‘let’s be coy’ production, but truly one made vivid with visual style and punch.

The final scene of this Antony and Cleopatra is one that is theatrically hypnotic in how it is constructed. It is simply gorgeous. It answers the question of the Brave Sprit’s production as posed by musical selection during intermission;

Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?
Will you still love me when I’ve got nothing but my aching soul?
I know you will, I know you will
I know that you will.

Running Time: Two hours and 25 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra plays through October 1, 2016 at Brave Spirits Theatre performing at The Lab at Convergence – 1819 North Quaker Lane, in Alexandria, VA. For tickets, purchase them online.

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