One of William Shakespeare's more complex plays, Antony and Cleopatra, is tackled by the University of Houston School of Theatre and Dance - complex because it operates as both a power struggle among factions competing for world power, and as an intimate romance between two of the principals in that struggle.
The key roles, of course, are the titular ones, Antony and Cleopatra. Seth Gilliam plays Mark Antony, and provides an athletic build, but never finds the authority of a leader cast in the heroic mold. We need to see a leader whom soldiers would follow with fierce loyalty, and we do not. He is besotted with love (perhaps lust), the character flaw that brings him down, but we have to see the "mighty" before we can think "how have the mighty fallen."
Crystal Dickinson plays Cleopatra with a big, bravura personality, approaching strident. At times, it seemed like Desperate Housewives of Alexandria. There is no hint of regal bearing in her performance, although she did manage to achieve some dignity after the death of Antony. The director of the play sets the tone, of course, and Leah C. Gardiner has chosen to present the narrative, but not the poetry, and to forego nuance for line deliveries where the actors shout the words - unnecessary, since they are miked. Fortunately, the bard spins quite a yarn, and the story is gripping, so the evening has a lot going for it.
There are some excellent performances, chiefly that of Brandon Dirden as Octavius, who had the appropriate rhythm in his speech, and brought a sense of power wielded judiciously, providing a strong and ennobling portrayal. Houston stalwart Rutherford Cravens was good in several roles, and Greg Cote as the messenger was subtle and effective, enhancing the humor with his body language. Paul Hope as the soothsayer was compelling, and got his laughs as well later on as the Clown. Andrew Garrett was good in a double role, and I liked Dain Geist in a minor role.
The role of Enobarbus, friend and adviser to Antony, is a major one, and is played by Chris Hutchison, unrelentingly, at the top of his voice, so that the complex character the bard has written is drained of subtlety. I was looking forward to the famous passage beginning "The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne/burned on the water", but Hutchison's absolutely wrong and unnecessary long pause after "burned" made me wonder if the barge had caught fire. I also looked forward to the brief but witty and important scene with Seleucus where Cleopatra cons Octavius, but this has unfortunately been omitted.
Many of Shakespeare's salacious double entendres are breezed past as though non-existent. And Cleopatra's famous line "O happy horse, to bear the weight of Antony" is inexplicably delivered while Dickinson pantomimes being the rider - the exact opposite of Shakespeare's witty meaning. One can only say: Alas, and lackaday.
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The director has captured much of the humor, and the play is difficult indeed, as the love story needs to be majestic, epic, but contains elements of soap opera. Yet it has been a magnet for great actors: Katharine Cornell, Vivien Leigh, Peggy Ashcroft, Tallulah Bankhead, Vanessa Redgrave - and Mark Rylance in an all-male production.
The play is performed at the Miller Outdoor Theatre as part of an annual Shakespeare Festival (this is the 38th year), is performed at 8:30 to enjoy the cooler evening hours, and is free. The verdict:
A strong narrative and some excellent performances contribute a lot, but the direction fails to find the poetry, and some of the actors in principal roles are seriously off-the mark.
Antony and Cleopatra continues August 4, 6, 8 and 10, while William Shakespeare's As You Like It is performed August 3, 7, 9 and 11, at Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park Drive. Admission and parking is free. For information on obtaining reserved seating, call 832-487-7102 or 281- 373-3386 or contact www.houstonfestivalscompany.com