I’m not often afforded a glimpse of the nuts and bolts of theatrical artifice. Design work, by the time I enter a theater, is almost invariably complete—canvas, Styrofoam, and wood having been cunningly disguised with stipples of paint and dapples of light until there’s little evidence that they aren’t solid as stone.

So it was with some fascination that I first set eyes on the opulent faux-Egyptian, art-nouveau mausoleum that Greg Mitchell has created for the Washington Shakespeare Company’s Antony and Cleopatra. A few weeks before, I’d caught a staged reading of Two Noble Kinsmen, performed in this same Clark Street Playhouse on what was then the barest of bare stages—a huge, sloped square of plywood tilted so that the front corner touched the auditorium’s concrete floor.

Mitchell has since transformed that square into a solid marble surface, edged it with tile (probably linoleum but persuasive as stone, even to the touch), and backed it with faux-sandstone walls, monumental fluted columns, and gilded art-nouveau screens that look heavy enough to bring down the auditorium’s roof beams. With deep shadows provided by Ayun Fedorcha’s lighting, the effect is now majestic, especially from the front corner of the square, where the crisscrossing black and white lines of the floor seem to converge to focus attention on the crypt of Julius Caesar, which rises 3 to 4 feet high in the place of honor, stage center.

Oddly, the audience gets only to pass by that particular—and visually perfect—view, on the way to seating that has been perversely arranged in less-prime locations on either side. From my seat, roughly centered in risers facing the left front side of the square, the steeply raked stage appeared to have no focus at all, spilling in the general direction of the theater entrance, but with the floor’s pattern pulling the eye straight back to the gilded screens rather than to the acting area.

Now, you can’t blame the Washington Shakespeare Company for deciding to approach Shakespeare’s sprawling Antony and Cleopatra, with its lovestruck Romeo-meets-Lady Macbeth storyline, from an odd angle or two—but sideways?

Mark Antony’s initial entrance, through a gate at the top center of the square, suggests that the problem isn’t insurmountable. Alone on stage, martini in hand, all but blubbering for the Caesar he once famously came to bury, not praise, Ian Armstrong’s Roman soldier is suitably imposing. But the instant his fellow performers enter, with costumer Rhonda Key’s shimmering, pleated gowns and snappy military uniforms placing the action firmly in a modern context, the visual focus splinters, and the only way anyone can seem central is to stand atop Caesar’s tomb.

Symbolically, of course, that’s useful, and co-directors Lofty Durham and Cam Magee make the most of it by having Delia Taylor’s writhing, almost feral Cleopatra and her conquered conqueror embrace passionately atop the crypt. That the tomb on which they’re groping contains the remains of a man who was both the father of Cleopatra’s children and the spiritual father Antony’s trying to live up to gives the scenes a palpable chill.

But it’s a chill that dissipates whenever other characters hold sway, as happens with increasing frequency as Octavius Caesar (Jason Stiles) sends emissaries to check up on the lovesick Antony. Illicit passion gives way to imperial politics, the action leaps from Egypt to Rome and back again, and it gets harder and harder to tell where anyone stands, either literally or figuratively.

What’s more, because of the odd seating arrangement—two rectangular banks of chairs, each facing one of the two front sides of the square, with that open space at the corner—the usual devices directors might employ to focus audience attention wouldn’t work. With viewers thus arrayed, the only way to have actors’ faces visible to everyone is to play dialogue straight to the downstage corner, the one spot where no one is sitting. That way, at least patrons can see the side of every actor’s face. But the effect is that nothing is being played directly to us; we’re effectively sitting in the wings. Similarly, where a director would normally pull performers to the forwardmost lip of the stage for intimate scenes, doing so in this case only distances most patrons from the action.

To their credit, Durham and Magee have found reasonably effective rationales for staging scenes on a diagonal, and they work hard to keep the look varied, but their bag of tricks is not bottomless. Nor is the cast’s, though there are standouts here and there. Chief among them is Stiles’ unfussy, coldly calculating Octavius Caesar, a refreshing variation on the snivelling wuss the character is usually made out to be. Also effective are Jonathan Watkins, as Antony’s conflicted right-hand man, and Kimberly Gilbert, who plays both a shrieking soothsayer and a regal Roman bride.

As the title characters, Taylor and Armstrong are more bellicose and temperamental than is really wise (or even dramatically necessary), but then, they’re heading for a grisly, blood-soaked end, so perhaps reining in their histrionics wouldn’t work, either. Give them credit, in any event, for managing an effective final tableau: Cleopatra lying dead atop Caesar’s crypt, her head resting on Antony’s lifeless body, and a river of crimson snaking this way and that down the raked stage for perhaps 10 feet along that problematic diagonal: visible to all, dramatic from any angle. CP

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