Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (1606-07), written after the great tragedies of Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, is seen by scholars and theater practitioners as a “problem play.” Despite the fame of its protagonists and the richness of the plot and poetry, the play is seldom produced, and assessments of its text and its characters diverge widely. Emily Mann’s current production of Antony and Cleopatra at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre in Princeton is an exciting theatrical event and a bold, engaging endeavor to present and overcome the challenges of this perplexing masterwork.
The problems start with the play’s genre. Is it history, tragedy, romance, comedy, or something else? (The McCarter website, mccarter.org, gives you an opportunity to vote on this question.) The historical detail here is extensive — Plutarch’s Lives (translated into English in 1579) is Shakespeare’s principal source — as Antony, Cleopatra, Octavius Caesar and others engage in the civil wars, after the death of Julius Caesar, which eventually lead to the end of the Roman Republic and the establishment of the Roman Empire. The grandeur of the two protagonists and the sense of loss and waste in their devastating fall certainly evoke the thoughts and emotions of tragedy. But there is also a spirit and tone here that is lighter than that of the great tragedies. The romance here — both in the love between Antony and Cleopatra and in the contrasts between the stern, efficient reality of Rome and the exotic, emotional, sensual attractions of Egypt — is a powerful element of the play.
The problems, both practical and theoretical, multiply for producers of this play. How do you stage a script that includes 42 scenes, as the action of the play shifts rapidly back and forth between Rome and Alexandria in Egypt, from palaces to battlefields and elsewhere throughout the Mediterranean, and calls for more than 40 different characters? And how do you interpret these heroic, larger-than-life, even mythical main characters with their fatal flaws, their moral ambiguity, and their destructive actions?
Ms. Mann has made judicious cuts in the original script, eliminating several short scenes and merging or eliminating a few minor characters, in order to focus the action and bring the running time to just two and a half hours. Only 11 actors here play 21 different roles. Audiences are not likely to miss the deleted lines, characters, or events. Also streamlining the action and enhancing pace, continuity, and dramatic tension are Daniel Ostling’s unit set design, finely coordinated with Paul Tazewell’s striking costumes, Edward Pierce’s lavish and varied expressionistic lighting and Mark Bennett’s original music and sound, mostly performed onstage by percussionist Mark Katsaounis.
The simple set, following the principle of Shakespeare’s bare platform stage without curtains, consists only of three large panels — like three huge sails? — golden in color and origami-like in their texture and folds. The actors and their lines, aided by costumes, music and lighting, splendidly and clearly delineate the shifting locales and contrasting worlds of this play. Individually and in finely coordinated collaboration, the clothing, the soundscape, the colors, and the nuances of light reflect the clashing of the cold, martial efficiency of Octavius’s Rome with the warmer, less rigid, more mysterious allures of Egypt.
An even bigger challenge with this problem play lies in the two monumental protagonists and their troubled, intense relationship. Again Ms. Mann has risen to the challenges in her casting of Esau Pritchett and Nicole Ari Parker. Mr. Pritchett played the leading role of Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s Fences at McCarter last January and last spring performed as a younger Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (1599) at the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre. The imposing character of Troy, albeit in mid-20th century Pittsburgh rather than first century B.C. Rome, shares a number of Antony’s strengths and flaws, and Mr. Pritchett, with numerous other Shakespearean roles on his resume, is superbly qualified to don the mantel of Antony here. He is physically and vocally able to command the stage — convincing as the great, aging military and political leader and also fully believable as the lover of Cleopatra. As he moves back and forth between Rome and Egypt, Mr. Pritchett’s Antony vividly embodies the noble, admirable qualities and the morally ambiguous, flawed qualities of both worlds. He is convincing as both mighty warrior and infatuated lover, in grandeur and in human weakness. He is both “the triple pillar of the world” and ”a strumpet’s fool,” as he is described by one of his followers in the opening scene.
As Cleopatra, Ms. Parker, star of films and Showtime’s Soul Food series, is, in many ways, a worthy counterpart to this Antony. Dazzlingly beautiful in an array of stunning costumes, she brings the character to life with a contemporary flair that works effectively in portraying Cleopatra in many of her more human moments of worry, of anger, of cattiness, of bantering affection with Antony, of jealousy when she hears of Antony’s arranged marriage. She is less adept than Mr. Pritchett with the poetic lines, however, less clear in communicating the rich language and less able to rise to the grand stature of this mighty queen and last reigning pharaoh of Egypt.
As Antony’s friend and follower Enobarbus, Michael Siberry creates a sympathetic character, torn by central conflicts of the play. He also provides a valuable, often ambivalent perspective on the proceedings and delivers, most eloquently, some of the Bard’s finest poetry. For example, he describes Cleopatra: “The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,/Burnt on the water. The poop was beaten gold;/Purple the sails, and so perfumed that/The winds were lovesick with them … Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale/Her infinite variety.”
As Cleopatra’s eunuch Mardian, the incomparable Everett Quinton, bedecked in bright orange with appropriate nail polish and shimmering handbag, creates a character — fascinating, extravagant, at times comical, yet believable too — to embody the gender conflicts and ambiguities of the play. Mr. Quinton plays a second very different role, also convincing, in the final scene of the play as he delivers the basket of deadly asps to his queen.
As Octavius Caesar, the cold, calculating, consummate leader, nephew, and adoptive son of Julius Caesar, soon to become the triumphant Caesar Augustus, Tobias Segal, not large in size but mighty in authority, delivers his part with imperious command.
The first-rate supporting cast is impressively strong, well-rehearsed and consistently in character. Mairin Lee in two roles as Octavia, sister of Octavius, betrothed to Antony in an arranged political marriage, and also as Cleopatra’s servant Iras is on target and affecting, as is Zainab Jah as another attendant on the queen. Tom Sesma in a variety of roles, Philippe Bowgen as Octavius’ stern lieutenant, Keith Eric Chappelle as a mesmerizing soothsayer and other roles, and Warner Miller as Antony’s faithful right-hand man–all lend credible, invaluable support.
Mr. Katsaounis, the percussionist, ensconced on stage left but emerging at key moments with an enormous red, war drum, rightfully joins the cast list, as a significant dynamic player in the drama.
“Give me my robe. Put on my crown. I have/Immortal longings in me,” Cleopatra tells her attendants as her end approaches in the final scene of the play.
Despite all the “problems” of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, the play is undeniably one of the Bard’s greatest poetic masterpieces and a brilliant study of two of the most fascinating, memorable characters in all literature and history. The theatricality here is brilliant. Ms. Mann and the McCarter company successfully bring Shakespeare’s colorful, transcendently poetic vision to life in this stirring production.