ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA
at the Ruth Page Theatre
I suppose it’s only natural to find Shakespeare Repertory’s Antony and Cleopatra and Goodman Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet shacked up together in my mind. After all, they’re both Shakespearean, they opened nine days apart, and they’re basically about the same thing: a love that can’t survive its surroundings. Romeo falls for Juliet, Antony falls for Cleopatra, and–between family feuds and Roman intrigues–they all four end up committing suicide. No, it isn’t very pretty what a bard without pity can do.
Even the plot mechanics are similar. In both plays the male half offs himself because he thinks his lover’s already dead, and in both plays he’s wrong.
But where Romeo gets the fatal misinformation from a well-meaning friend who’s honestly mistaken, Antony hears it from Cleopatra’s eunuch–who’s under orders from his mistress to lie. And that, when you come down to it, is the essential difference between the two plays: Romeo and Juliet are innocent kids destroyed by a world they never made, Antony and Cleopatra aren’t quite so innocent. And, yes, they did make the world that finally destroys them.
They’re what the newsmen call major players. They move and shake on a global level. Antony’s a great general and a canny politician who, as one-third of Rome’s triumvirate, rules the eastern portion of the world. His oratory, Shakespeare fans will remember, swung the Roman masses away from Brutus and Cassius after the assassination of Julius Caesar; his military tactics helped swing all hope from them as well, at the battle of Philippi.
Cleopatra, of course, is Cleopatra–the Egyptian queen around with whom men like Caesar and Antony fooled but did not mess. As Antony’s famously blunt- lieutenant, Enobarbus, says in famously atypical moment of rapture: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety; other women cloy the appetites they feed, but she makes hungry where most she satisfies; for vilest things become themselves in her, that the holy priests bless her when she is riggish.”
And she’s often riggish. Not to mention vain, false, venal, cowardly, capricious, unjust, and self-indulgent. Also jealous, childish, vulgar, manipulative, wheedling, self-dramatizing, grasping, and full of excuses.
Unlike Romeo and Juliet, Cleopatra and Antony are both fully determined, if not exactly mature. Ripe and overripe in their greatness and vice. Cleopatra is a practiced sexual politician who revels as much in the sensations of seduction as in her power to seduce. Antony’s given over all his cunning and caution to revel with her. I can imagine them coming up for air a little before sunrise on the morning after their first night together, looking at each other with a hard, gauging look, a politic look, but pierced with astonishment as they slowly allow themselves to think to themselves, Here is the one person in the entire world with a hunger to equal mine.
Which makes them about a thousand times more interesting than Romeo and Juliet. It’s no accident that R&J enjoved a revival during the 60s, when the boom generation was young and romantic and ready to identify with a couple of misunderstood kids who make, you know, like the supreme sacrifice for love. But these here are more Machiavellian times–or more Machiavellian bodies–we’re living in now, and the combination of endless appetite and infinite weariness embodied in Antony and Cleopatra reflects us nicely.
Or would, given the right production. But this isn’t it.
One more thing Antony and Cleopatra shares with Romeo and Juliet is its demand for a couple of strong leads, capable of sustaining their characters through enormous transformations. Barbara Robertson and Bruce A. Young are very strong leads. Definitiely among the strongest in Chicago. He–dark black, with a powerful body and a booming voice–and she–milk white, with hard feline edges–make a stunning pair and a conceptually fascinating Antony and Cleopatra.
But neither of them can negotiate the changes Shakespeare throws at them. It’s almost comical in its Jack Sprat confusions: Robertson, vivid to start, with her itchy, sexy vulgarity but growing paler and less believable later on as she attempts to express Cleopatra’s essential grandeur; Young, dull to start, in his inability to communicate Antony’s doting weakness for Cleopatra–but gathering considerable power later on as the militant, desperate, last-stand Antony.
The basic problem may be in Barbara Gaines’s direction, which manages somehow to sustain an atmosphere of academic garishness. The show plays like a carnival at the University of Chicago. Frances Maggio’s costumes in particular are nothing short of ridiculous in their pseudo-operatic, metaphor-dripping obviousness–especially the ones Peter Aylward’s condemned to wear in various roles. A normally solid actor, Aylward comes across here as the victim of a sartorial vendetta on the one hand, and as a graduate of the School of Funny Voices on the other. These don’t seem to be his choices, but Gaines’s.
A few elements survive. Robert Shook’s lights, for instance accomplish marvelous transitions across dozens of scenes played out all over the Mediterranean. Greg Vinkler has a couple of funny passages, and Robert Scogin makes an endearingly gruff Enobarbus.
And then there’s the play. Antony and Cleopatra’s without question a better, more interesting, mature, and daring work than Romeo and Juliet. But if you want my advice I’d say wait for a better production of it, and hit the Goodman instead.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.