Would set designer/director Sam Martinez please tell me why the Corinthian columns, which ring Obsidian Theater's small stage for its production of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, are upside down? Is this intentional? Is this symbolic of the power struggle between ancient Rome and even-older Egypt? If the columns were broken and strewn across the stage like some John Pierre Ponnelle opera production from the '80s, that might make sense, but to have the acanthus capitals at the bottom of the columns is just weird – and wrong. Artistic license is one thing, bad Art History 101 is careless.
This entire production is careless. It gives me no joy to bash bad Shakespeare, especially when his sublime voice is eternally relevant and this play so rarely produced, but there's not much good to say about this version.
Shakespeare's sprawling epic of empire smashing and grand passion is a difficult work to pull off in the best of conditions. Ever since it's premiere, circa 1607, A&C has had troubles connecting with the public. It's truly cinematic in its telling, quickly cutting from Alexandrian palaces, Roman halls, the banks of Taursus, the seacoast of Actium, desert encampments, to the interior of Cleopatra's mausoleum. The play is dense with political intrigue, sexual tension, male bravado, female wiles. It's the original sand and sandals tale, as muscular Rome confronts sensuous Egypt. And the role of Cleopatra is perhaps the most complex character in all Shakespeare's wide world: regal, imperious, clever, powerful, mysterious, kittenish, playful, proud, and, let's not forget, sexy. History's view of Egypt's last queen has been forever tainted by how Shakespeare painted her. Full of “infinite variety,” she's described as “gypsy,” “whore,” and “woman whom everything becomes.”
I will get this out the way right now. Forgive me, but Whitney Zangarine's Cleopatra displays none of these qualities. There's no fire in her, no royalty, no passion, and definitely no variety. She's out of her league, but to be fair, numerous actresses have tripped over this sphinx of the Nile. The last time I saw Antony and Cleopatra on stage was at the Alley in 1996 with Vanessa Redgrave, and even this formidable actor didn't set the theater afire, she barely smoldered. Zangarine looks lovely in her Art Deco flapper-fringed dress at the start of the play, and even more svelte in her purple sheath evening wear at the end, but director Martinez has swathed her in smeared makeup after the disastrous Battle of Actium which is not a good look for any actor. She plays all of Act V, which includes her noble death scene, looking like Emmett Kelly after Hurricane Katrina. It's a horrible choice and should be remedied as quickly as possible.
There's no pacing whatever; the lighting is merely switched on and off; the sound is haphazard – and when Obsidian uses narration to cover what's been redacted in the script, we'd better hear it plain and clear. The lengthy play's been chopped down to manageable size, which is an acceptable practice ever since Shakespeare directed his company, but I miss Enobarbus's complete depiction of Cleopatra's entrance into Taursus, which includes some of Shakespeare's most radiant poetry, you know, “The barge she sat in like a burnish'd throne burned on the water...” The whole affair seems choppy, when not overly loud, declamatory, or poorly delivered. When we lose the momentum of the story right from the beginning because characters rush on and scream at us, we never catch up.
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But there are three bright points in Obsidian's meager outing. Although he has no one to play against, Tom Stell, as besotted Antony, acts for everyone else. His magnificent baritone, with redolent shades of Richard Burton, raises the barre significantly. He can certainly “speak the speech...trippingly on the tongue,” and his Antony is full of complexity and is terribly conflicted. He will side with Octavian, even marry his rival's sister to consolidate power, but is inevitably pulled toward Alexandria into Cleopatra's waiting arms. Rome or Egypt? Where does he belong? Shakespeare tells us with beguiling insight that he belongs nowhere. He's a man without a country, and that's just how Stell plays him. Unfortunately, he has to act all by himself, but he does this with great depth and conviction. (If the others would actually listen to him, they'd be heightened.)
Seth Cunningham, as spoiled brat Octavius, gives Stell a worthy opponent. Petulant and dangerous, Cunningham overlays Rome's future emperor with the aggressive posture of youth and an imposing imperial attitude. He is a young Caesar, flexing his power. Shakespeare gives him magnanimity, forgiving the lovers after the havoc they've wrought, allowing them to be buried together. In white fatigues with gold laurel wreath, Cunningham is oily and smooth, the next conqueror of the world. And Bryan Kaplun, as Antony's devoted aide-de-camp Enobarbus, with flask by his side, slickly comprehends what's it's like to see exemplar Antony fall apart. When Antony's fate is sealed, Enobarbus deserts to Octavius, and the guilt overwhelms him. His speech in which “I will go seek some ditch wherein to die; the foul'st best fits my latter part of life,” is tellingly revealed in blood red light.
Far from ideal, Obsidian's Antony and Cleopatra boasts Stell's stentorian Antony, Cunningham's prickly Octavius, and Kaplun's dyspeptic Enobarbus. Cleo and the others are no-shows. But there's enough Shakespearean brilliance to warrant a trip down the Nile, even if it's only on 6th Street in the Heights.
Antony and Cleopatra continues at 8 p.m. March 17, 23-25, 27, 29-31 and April 1, 6-8; 3 p.m. April 2 t the Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak. For information, call 713-300-2358 or 832-889-7837 or visit obsidiantheater.org. $20 to $30.