Antony and Cleopatra
Antony and Cleopatra

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Cleopatra and Antony coulda-shoulda-woulda been the title, had 17th century conventions permitted. There’s a reason all the film adaptations of this doomed romance, the first of which arrived 310 years after Shakespeare’s tough-to-categorize play and about two millennia after the historical events dramatized therein, are simply called Cleopatra. Supposedly the passionate ardor between the Ptolemaic queen and the Roman general—and all the challenges thereunto, including Antony’s marriage to his political rival’s sister—was a matter of national fascination in Rome and Alexandria. To call them the Beyoncé and Jay-Z of the Hellenistic period would be a more apt comparison if Beyoncé had had a child by Nas and then Hova had been a party to Nas’ assassination before hooking up with Bey a few years later. As I say, it’s an imperfect comparison. Elizabethan scholars will hasten to tell me it was in fact Jay who was sneaking around with Nas’ baby mama. As of this writing, Nas is alive and well.

Anyway, it’s a fascinating, too-seldom-performed play, perhaps because its main characters have no clear arc of ascension or dissolution, and instead careen wildly between sobriety and recklessness. Then there’s its sheer unwieldiness: Its lovers are already entwined when it starts, with Antony neglecting his duties back in Rome to stay with Cleopatra. Upon his return, his marriage to Octavia, the sister of his rival Octavius, fails to make a lasting peace between the two men. So he goes back to Cleopatra, joining her forces with his to take on  Octavius’ Navy. When Cleopatra’s ships retreat, he abandons his own force to follow his lover, the first of a cascading series of failures and defeats. 

For the Folger’s svelte new production, which whittles three dozen speaking parts to a third of that number, director Robert Richmond arranges the room as he did for his 2014 production of Richard III, putting the stage and the actors in the middle of the floor and putting rows of seats on what’s usually the stage. Designer Tony Cisek has also given the actors a rotating circular platform to tread, a giant Lazy Susan that lets us survey Mariah Hale’s ornate costumes from all angles: layers of burgundy leather armor and uncomfortable-looking leather pants for the Romans; glittering gowns for Cleopatra and her retinue. But it’s the caffeinated pace of this A and C that leaves your head agreeably spinning: Richmond uses shifts in Andrew F. Griffin’s lighting scheme to signal which side of the Mediterranean we’re on in any given scene, and the actors playing characters on another continent remain on stage with the others. No momentum is lost to blackouts.

As Cleopatra, Shirine Babb animates all of the great woman’s many contradictions; her humility and her vanity; her authority and her need. She makes Cleopatra’s love for Antony appear both deeply felt and the product of a strategic calculation, as any union of powerful people shall sometimes be. Cody Nickell is her crumbling Antony, and it’s probably just his greater familiarity onstage at the Folger and in other D.C. houses that makes his absorbing performance seem just slightly less significant. (Also, we’ve seen him wrestle with the mysteries of fidelity before, in Stupid Fucking Bird, among others.) They’re supported by a company that doesn’t have any weak links. Most of them are, like Babb, experienced performers appearing at the Folger Theatre for the first time. That would merit this Antony and Cleopatra a look even if the play itself weren’t so intent on surprising you. 

201 East Capitol St. SE. $35–$79. (202) 544-4600.