Antony and Cleopatra
Chicago Shakespeare Theater

By Albert Williams

“Is Chicago to be the home of punk Shakespeare?” asked Reader critic J. Linn Allen in the summer of 1986, reviewing King Henry V at the Red Lion Pub. There—in the heart of the Lincoln Avenue entertainment strip, where the Body Politic, Organic, Kingston Mines, and other troupes had helped launch the funky, adventurous off-Loop theater scene—a company called the Chicago Shakespeare Workshop was making its debut with what Allen called “a sassy, provocative show laced with a slapdash stylishness.”

Thirteen years and three name changes later, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater is still pursuing the purpose for which it was founded: the performance of Shakespeare’s plays by ensembles of Chicago-based actors rather than English or east-coast stars. But artistic director Barbara Gaines’s vision has taken her troupe far from Lincoln Avenue, in terms of sensibility as well as miles. The company’s new home—a sprawling seven-story, $22.2 million complex on Navy Pier—is refined, tasteful, and cozy, with a lovely view from the lobby of the Chicago skyline, its very own pub (who needs the Red Lion?), and a 525-seat auditorium boasting excellent acoustics, a fully computerized lighting system, consistently good sight lines, comfortable seats, and legroom aplenty.

There’s nothing remotely punk about the Chicago Shakespeare Theater now—after all, punk doesn’t pay the bills. And there’s nothing sassy or slapdash about the new venue’s inaugural production, Gaines’s staging of Antony and Cleopatra. Unfortunately there’s little that’s provocative either, though the show has stylishness to spare. Sleek, well paced, technically impressive, this Antony and Cleopatra is a thoroughly competent piece of stagecraft that nevertheless lacks excitement, poetic beauty, and tragic depth.

Written around 1606, Antony and Cleopatra is daunting even by Shakespearean standards, a sprawling piece of storytelling that cuts back and forth between the martial, macho imperial center of Rome and the languid, lusty Egyptian capital of Alexandria. The warrior Marc Antony, boon companion of the recently assassinated Julius Caesar, has followed in his dead friend’s footsteps not only by assuming leadership of Rome in partnership with Caesar’s heir, Octavius, but by becoming the lover of Caesar’s former mistress, the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. Seduced by her beauty and wit and by the indolent pleasures of her court, Antony has grown disastrously inattentive to his duties as one of Rome’s ruling triumvirate, whose third member, Lepidus, is soon swallowed up by the escalating antagonism between Antony and Octavius.

Antony finds it impossible to balance the demands of Roman politics with his tempestuous affair. The lovers are prone to quarreling when they’re not coupling, their relationship twisted not only by sexual jealousy (especially when Antony marries Octavius’s sister Octavia in an impulsive gesture of political goodwill) but by political mistrust: Cleopatra fears Antony will allow Rome to swallow up her nation’s independence, while Antony comes to suspect Cleopatra of collaborating with Octavius. The true depth of the lovers’ feelings is revealed only in the wake of Antony’s military defeat, when despair purges them of their claims to worldly power. In their suicides the lovers transcend the transient pressures of “dungy earth”—physical passion and political ambition—and find union in the “new heaven, new earth” that Antony alludes to at the beginning of the play.

This is drama on a gigantic scale, its tragic elements offset by startling episodes of sharp-witted, sometimes ribald humor and finally by a sense of otherworldly rapture, as Cleopatra embraces her “immortal longings” by pressing a poisonous snake to her breast. (“The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch, / Which hurts, and is desired,” she says in quiet exultation.) Death transforms the lovers’ turbulent relationship into an eternal marriage; Octavius, the consummate schemer and ultimate political victor, will go on to become Rome’s first emperor, but his triumph is paltry compared to his foes’ exalted destiny.

The sense of ennobling sacrifice that colors Antony and Cleopatra’s fate is foreshadowed by Antony’s friendship with the grizzled soldier Enobarbus, who deserts him and then dies of a broken heart when he realizes Antony’s essential nobility. Enobarbus, like Cleopatra, is torn between devotion to and distrust of Antony; but where Cleopatra goes to a joyous death, having risen above the forces that poisoned her relationship with Antony, Enobarbus gives in to his skepticism and subsequently dies in shame and sorrow.

Part tragedy and part comedy, part history play and part meditation on the ephemerality of flesh and the eternity of spirit, Antony and Cleopatra covers huge emotional ground—and demands leads who can bridge the play’s dramatic extremes. Kevin Gudahl—an actor of extraordinary vocal and physical resources—makes a grand and fiery Antony in the play’s first act, and if he had a partner of equal strength the production could have approached the script’s titanic heights. But Lisa Dodson is simply out of her depth as Cleopatra. A competent character actress, she’s devoid of mystery and utterly lacking in genuine eroticism, coming off smirky when she should be seductive, snippy when she should be imperious, and smug when she should be serene. Cleopatra’s quicksilver mood changes here seem arbitrary choices rather than deep-rooted signs of psychological complexity; she’s described by Enobarbus as a woman of “infinite variety,” but Dodson’s variety is decidedly finite. Worst of all, she and Gudahl never establish any credible connection despite their frequent displays of pawing and writhing; their lifeless, mechanical physical interaction doesn’t lay the emotional groundwork for us to see their deaths as a victory rather than defeat.

Dodson’s dull performance throws the focus onto Antony’s interaction with Enobarbus, and here the production fares far better. Larry Yando is in fine and refreshingly unmannered form, sensitively charting the character’s emotional transformation. A battle-scarred veteran, Enobarbus begins as a sardonic commentator on Antony and Cleopatra’s affair—it is he who delivers the famous descriptions of Cleopatra as a woman who “makes hungry where most she satisfies” and of her appearance on a golden barge whose sails were “so perfumed, that the winds were love-sick with them.” When Enobarbus switches his allegiance to Octavius out of disenchantment with Antony’s increasingly erratic behavior, Yando subtly traces his character’s growing disillusionment; when Enobarbus realizes that he’s made the wrong choice, seeing Antony’s loyal, noble nature and Octavius’s unscrupulous ambition, Yando makes the recognition soul shattering.

Octavius is a high-strung, mercurial figure in Scott Parkinson’s vibrant, piercing-eyed portrayal—aloofly regal yet vulnerably human, extravagantly expressive in his early affection for Antony and thus all the more chilling when Octavius turns against him. Parkinson conveys his character’s evolution from a callow boy into a master of ruthless, treacherous power politics; he also suggests the moralistic streak for which Octavius was famous when he became the emperor Augustus. (One very funny scene shows him reeling through a drunken party, trying vainly to keep up with his brutish fellow revelers, then priggishly disapproving of a drunkenness he can’t handle.)

Fine work also comes from other supporting actors, including Brad Armacost as the ill-fated Lepidus; Robert Scogin as Octavius’s aide Agrippa; Matthew Carter as Eros, Antony’s aptly named young servant who dies for love of his master; and the excellent Greg Vinkler in a series of small but telling parts, ranging from a quavery-voiced soothsayer to a blustery, buccaneer-like Pompey to the rustic fig peddler who smuggles the asps into Cleopatra’s throne room. This odd, comical character is quintessential Shakespeare: where almost any other writer would have drowned Cleopatra’s impending death in bathos, the Bard tweaks, twists, and stretches the suspense with this clownish peddler’s bawdy banter, a series of puns comparing his “worm” to the deadly snakes hidden in his fig basket—provoking laughter even as he underlines the play’s thematic link between love and death.

There are a few kitschy touches—notably a seminude pas de deux by two lissome dancers straight out of a Vegas showroom and Jason Ball’s jokey portrayal of Cleopatra’s eunuch servant, Mardian, as a beefy, deep-voiced wrestler type rather than the “saucy” court bureaucrat Shakespeare intended. But Gaines’s staging is generally surefooted, bridging the narrative’s repeated geographical jumps with cinematic fluidity. Where far too many directors get bogged down in elaborate scene changes, trying to make each new sequence as “real” as possible, Gaines understands that theater—especially but not only Shakespeare—is an inherently poetic form that can change time and place through clearly articulated emotional shifts alone. This production’s focus is where it should be, on the language: the actors speak the text crisply and eloquently, avoiding both precious musicality and laborious “naturalistic” emotion and respecting the heightened nature of the poetry even as they give it their own individualistic, sometimes quirky interpretations.

The show’s stark, dark design supports rather than dominates the verbal interplay. James Noone’s set is essentially bare, an empty thrust stage leading to a steep stairway upstage; Christopher Akerlind’s lighting pinpoints some key moments and casts others in moody shadow; Nan Cibula-Jenkins’s basic black costumes have silver accents for the rigid Romans and warmer gold touches for the sensual Egyptians. (Antony, torn between two cultures, wears a black and silver cloak and a gold breastplate.) Alaric Jans’s incidental music veers a bit too close to film soundtrack cliches—rattling drums and trumpet fanfares for the Romans, plucked strings and whispering wind chimes for the Egyptians—at once recalling and paling in comparison to Alex North’s magnificent score for the Elizabeth Taylor movie Cleopatra. But in general the production suggests period pageantry without succumbing to ersatz-Hollywood glitz. A tight-formation procession of Roman military leaders marching two by two down the stairway benefits from the elegant plainness of the men’s trimly tailored uniforms, while Cleopatra’s death scene is memorably simple: the queen sits on her throne beneath two arching golden rods—a reminder that pyramids, the traditional tombs of pharaohs, were also their gateway to everlasting life.

With a more dynamic leading actress, Antony and Cleopatra might have made last weekend’s opening of Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s new space an unqualified artistic as well as social success. Falling short of the magnificence Shakespeare demands, it’s nevertheless a solid, high-quality effort that establishes a strong standard for future productions, in which one hopes technical proficiency will be matched by passion and power.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Liz Lauren.