Balancing Love and Duty on Hartford Stage

Antony and Cleopatra is showing at the Hartford Stage/Photos by T. Charles EricksonHARTFORD — Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra seems to be two distinct plays uneasily coexisting on one stage.  The first is the intimate tragedy of the title characters, star-crossed in their love like older versions of Romeo and Juliet – complete with the unfortunate consequences of a falsely-announced death.  The second is a kind of Mediterranean Henry V”– an epic sweep of nations, armies and political plots deciding the future course of the Roman world.  Finding an effective balance between the two energies is what makes the play so challenging – and why it is so rarely produced.

Tina Landau’s boisterous production of Antony and Cleopatra, which opened last week in the expansively remodeled Hartford Stage, tries to solve the challenge by ignoring it.  Everything is epic; intimacy is nowhere to be found.  The Egyptian court, where Mark Antony and Cleopatra are in the throes of their passionate affair, boasts the open, freewheeling party atmosphere of a frat house on Homecoming weekend – or a TV ‘reality’ show like “Egyptian Shore.”  The colorful costumes are appropriately graceful and suggestive for the women, skimpy for the men.  Large floor cushions are tossed around with abandon, and the title lovers proclaim – and nearly consummate – their passion while lounging servants and courtiers look on delightedly.  It’s consistently fun to watch; Landau is expert at filling a stage with energy and intention.  Two important elements, however, seem to get lost in the shuffle. One is a sense of social hierarchy.  These two noble rulers treat – and are treated by – their servants and staff with jovial equality. They are like the fun-loving host and hostess of a perpetual party, without the sense of grandeur, power and separateness that makes their tragedy significant.  The other, related missing element is that we never get the sense that they fully understand the political implications of their passion; they seem somewhat bewildered by the consequences of their choices.

Things are clearer – and the stakes seem much higher – when the action shifts across the Mediterranean.  The Romans under Octavius Caesar – although distractingly costumed in what seem to be oversized white lab coats – communicate a clear sense of the political and military risks and rewards.  And the forces of the rebellious Pompey (whose tattered leather costumes suggest a stylish motorcycle gang) convey a palpable sense of greed and danger.

It is Mark Antony himself who has to carry us with him to these disparate worlds of Alexandria, Rome and the battlefield.  John Douglas Thompson has a masterful command of the language, but his character is something of a cipher.  There is no sense of a grand passion in his love for Cleopatra – more of a convenient opportunity happily enjoyed.  Indeed, he seems a bit more comfortable in his brief scenes with Octavia, the sister of Octavius Caesar whom he amiably agrees to marry for political reasons, than with the Egyptian queen.  And he is clearly at his happiest and most relaxed in the all-male atmosphere of the battlefield, carousing drunkenly with Octavius, Pompey and assorted hangers-on.  In short, Thompson’s Antony seems to be a rugged man’s man to whom all women are of secondary importance.  The tragedy for this Antony is not the loss of Cleopatra, but the loss of status and power in Rome.  It’s an intriguing characterization, but it serves to rob the play of the depths of passion and tragic choice that make it important.

It is in the astonishing performance of Kate Mulgrew as Cleopatra that the passion and its consequences can be clearly traced.  In the early scenes she is neither regal queen nor political manipulator; she is, simply and totally, a woman giddy with excitement and delight at an unexpected and overwhelming love affair.  Whatever awareness she may have of what the affair may cost both her and Antony is deeply buried beneath her almost desperate happiness.  (You may insert your own denial/de Nile wordplay here.)  Cleopatra reveals herself most fully, not in exchanges with the clueless Antony nor with the devious Octavius, but in a truly thrilling scene with a lowly messenger (beautifully played by Jake Green) whose unenviable job it is to break the news of Antony’s sudden marriage to Octavia.  Mulgrew rushes through a whirlwind of feelings and attitudes – she wants to know, she doesn’t want to know, she’s outraged, she’s resigned, she’s demanding, she’s defeated – while the hapless messenger tries both to keep up and stay out of her way.  The scene is hilarious, but it’s also much more.  We see a woman finally forced to admit that there will not be a happily-ever-after ending to her storybook romance.  From that point forward Mulgrew slowly begins to subvert her heart to the practical realities of her kingdom and its needs.  It’s truly beautiful work by an actress who seems ready to take on a whole range of solid and important roles.  And not just in tragedies, please – for some reason I came away wanting to see her in a much needed revival of Thornton Wilder’s “Matchmaker.”

The rest of the high-power cast – most making Hartford Stage debuts after extensive credits in New York and Chicago – are generally as effective as their roles allow them to be.  Alexander Cendese as Pompey and Scott Parkinson as Octavius Caesar come off strongest.  Keith Randolph Smith as Enobarbus has a largely thankless task as the character through whom Shakespeare tells the audience what we need to know as the story unfolds, and he seems at times overwhelmed by the words.  But then the whole cast hit some speed bumps on opening night – misplaced lines, mistimed entrances – that suggest they will become more effective as they relax into their roles.

This Antony and Cleopatra certainly shows off Hartford Stage’s expanded technical capabilities, and director Landau makes effective use of the sprawling unit set.  Some effects – a basket lift for the dead Antony, a meaningless stream of water (the Nile?  the Mediterranean?  a storm drain?) – are more distracting than meaningful.   The lighting design of Scott Zielinski is both powerful and immensely helpful in focusing the story as it moves forward.

All in all, Hartford Stage has created a worthy production with which to open a season and re-dedicate a performance space.  If the challenge with Antony and Cleopatra lies in finding a balance between its disparate parts, this production makes it clear that ‘balance’ is also the story’s underlying theme.  How do we balance responsibility and desire?  Head and heart?  Public and private?  Personal appetites and a larger purpose?  The questions haven’t gone away in the four centuries since the play was first performed; it’s both important and rewarding to visit them again.

Rev. Edward Townley is senior minister at Unity of Greater Hartford in South Windsor.  He is the author of The Secret According to Jesus and responds to a lively range of Bible questions on the “Interpret This” blog on the international Unity website, www.unity.org.

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