KPBS AIRDATE: March 25, 2005
It’s a classic story; older man, younger woman. He falls hard and makes a fool of himself. But in this version, the stakes are inordinately high. It’s not just about pleasure vs. duty, vice or virtue, passion or reason. It’s about world dominance and political supremacy. The Roman Empire vs. the kingdom of Egypt. When Marcus Antonius chose lust over power, he gambled big – and lost everything. Though the historical background of “Antony and Cleopatra” pits the sensuous, self-indulgent East against the civilizing, self-denying West, Shakespeare shone his spotlight most directly on matters of the heart. His is a story of raging passions, violent emotions. When these are contrasted with Caesar’s limp, icy caution, there’s no contest. Even though Caesar is the only point of the triangle left at the end, and he gains dominion over all the land, his is a vacuous victory. It is the tempestuous affair that charms us, with its soul-stirring turbulence and intensity. Antony and Cleopatra are the original superstars; complex, deeply flawed, endlessly fascinating.
The small, shoestring Poor Players production underscores the vehemence and the sexuality of the play. This overheated couple can barely keep their hands off each other, but their tightly coiled emotions also send them spiraling into hot-tempered, vicious outbursts, even abusive acts. Their passion destroys them, but what a way to go. Their separate suicides provide the ultimate reunion, and even salvation.
Richard Baird is a powerhouse as the conflicted Antony, an imposing presence, virile and commanding — but brought to his knees by his ardor, and reduced to a weeping shadow of his vigorous former self. He is a bipolar behemoth, drawn inexorably to that siren of the Nile. As Cleopatra, Amy Meyer is beautiful and beguiling, though more credible as temptress than potentate. As the cynical soldier Enobarbus, the conscience of the play, Max Macke does a lovely job, thoughtful, poetic and – this being a Poor Players production – soused with the best of ‘em. The violence is also there, as always, and handled well. The deaths are heart-stopping and heart-breaking.
Nick Kennedy has directed with all the youthful vigor this company is known for. They make Shakespeare fresh and young and relevant. Kennedy also steps in as Octavius Caesar, to contrast a distant, cold prudence with Antony’s brash and blistering impetuosity. Some of the secondary actors are less facile with the language, whose clarity is a Poor Players trademark. So the sum total of this bare-bones production may be a tad uneven. But it moves like lightning, and the new, more expansive, black box space gives ample room for all the passions to explode. In the end, Caesar may rule, but Antony and Cleo rock.
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.