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The young firebrand who mounted the podium to importune his friends, Romans, and countrymen is a middle-aged wreck by the time he’s mounting the Queen of the Nile, and therein lies the fascination of playing Shakespeare’s tragic toga parties in tandem.
In Antony and Cleopatra, the master manipulator has frittered away any street cred he had with his fellow generals and has seemingly also lost his gift for public gab. Challenge him now, and he summons up no oratorical bombast, no cagey spinning. Oh, he can charm Octavius when called home to Rome, but he’s quit worrying about distinctions between republics and empires, or even about his duty. His sense of honor will come back when all else has been lost, but for the moment, he has abandoned himself to pleasure and to indulging the whims of a singular Egyptian temptress.
Cleopatra, in Suzanne Bertish’s grandly slatternly portrayal, is a diminutive trollop in gold lamé, past her salad days perhaps, but still very much in her prime. Often comic in early scenes, but growing into the majesty required of tragedy by evening’s end, she is a wildly contradictory, even a neurotic creature, one moment flirtatious, the next demanding; a girlish coquette as she enters a room, a ferocious inquisitor when someone else joins her; jealous and loving by turns, temperamental by habit.
Small wonder that her “infinite variety” has Antony so unbalanced, he scarcely knows where he stands. Let them agree to part, and she’s already pulling him back even as she bids him go. Let her begin a lengthy compliment in a seductive purr, and that purr will last right up until the final word erupts in a shriek, altering the meaning of every syllable that’s gone before.
But if keeping Antony off-kilter is an effective strategy for keeping him around, it will also prove their mutual undoing. Her unpredictability is a liability on the battlefield, forcing him to second-guess and lose focus. Long-buried notions of honor can then surface to destroy him.
But along the way, director Michael Kahn can revel in the romantic byplay, and the soldierly carousing that makes Antony and Cleopatra such an unorthodox, intimate epic. He has a high old time with a sequence in which Bertish’s jealous queen forces a terrified messenger (a quivering Scott Parkinson) to describe Antony’s lovely Roman wife. And a scene in which the Roman leaders, in a rare moment of cooperation, party with the rebellious Pompey (a regal Craig Wallace) becomes an occasion for raucous drinking games. Ted Van Griethuysen’s Lepidus gets amusingly plastered, with Antony his willing enabler, while Deeker’s priggish Octavius, who has often seemed to have something of David Hyde Pierce’s superciliousness about him, suddenly discovers an inner Niles that has nothing to do with Egypt.
If that scene is brightly comic, it also allows Kahn to illustrate the differences that will divide this Roman triumvirate as the arc of history swings back toward tragedy. That Lepidus will be sidelined, that Octavius’ chilly reserve will stand him in good stead for the battles to come, and that Antony’s libertine impulses will cripple him in those same battles, all is clear even as the laughter fades.
Leaving only Cleopatra to juggle the world’s contradictions. In the play’s final third, done in by her need to claw at the world for all it has to offer, she must morph from what Kenneth Tynan called “one of the great sluts of world drama” to a genuinely tragic figure. Bertish manages the transformation with a striking economy, simply stilling herself by stages—from dervish, to siren, to grief-stricken survivor—until she is left a figure in whom nothing flashes but her eyes, and finally those, too, are still.