The last time Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra barged into town with its barely followable chronicle of disastrous naval battles and doomed love, the Shakespeare Theatre tried to make things clearer by having Caesar, Antony, Cleopatra, and Pompey float toy battleships in a wading pool during strategy sessions. The effect wasn’t so much of warring titans playing with the lives of their troops as of kids splashing in a giant bathtub.
This time around, set designer Michael Yeargan unfurls a stage-filling, 40-foot-wide map of the Mediterranean at the Lansburgh Theater, and director Ron Daniels has Caesar thwack the names of battle sites with his riding crop as they surface in the dialogue. This is more to the point, I suppose, but serves chiefly to establish either that the Bard was geographically challenged—the emperor looks increasingly like a frustrated windmill as he thwacks left and right—or that all the place name-dropping was merely for exotic effect.
Either way, the debates between various generals over whether to attack by land or by sea remain indecipherable, especially with French Foreign Legion-inspired costumes suggesting that all their armies are headquartered at Rick’s Cafe Americain in Casablanca. Luckily, the warfare in Antony and Cleopatra is only peripherally relevant to the middle-aged love story that inspires it, so a director can finesse the battle scenes if he’s blessed with decent leads.
Daniels is. He has a splendid, commanding Antony in Tom Hewitt, a compellingly schizoid Caesar in Wallace Acton, and a Cleopatra who grows in stature as played by Helen Carey, though she starts out as an empty-headed flibbertigibbet. The director’s staging doesn’t always capitalize on their strengths and at times seems perversely intent on making them look silly just before the script requires them to assert their majesty. Still, overall the evening manages to be interesting more often than not.
Its first half finds the Bard in a National Geographic mood, waxing poetic about Egyptian feasts and Cleopatra’s barge (“like a burnish’d throne/burn’d on the water”) while struggling to explain the political situation in Rome. The plot begins just a few months after the deaths of Brutus and Cassius in Julius Caesar, with Rome now ruled by a troubled triumvirate of emperors that needs to mend fences if it’s to counter a threat from Pompey’s navy.
Antony, who’s been dallying with Cleopatra on the banks of the Nile, heads home to Rome and patches up the unraveling alliance by marrying Caesar’s sister Octavia. He does this so blithely that it’s clear he doesn’t regard it as an impediment to his romance to the south, but Cleo is less than amused on his return, and when Caesar hears that their affair is still on, he vows to avenge his sister’s honor. The second half is mostly taken up with battle reports and vamping until the protagonists’ double suicide wraps things up a la Romeo and Juliet.
The script is filled with descriptions of everything from Egyptian sunsets to the heroine’s hair, quite as if exoticism were just as important to Elizabethan audiences as plot. Presumably knowing that contemporary viewers are likely to be less patient with all this verbal wallpaper, Daniels compensates with spare stage images that zip us from bedchamber to battlefield, massing his lovers and soldiers in tableaux that dissolve and regroup almost cinematically. Yeargan’s design elements are mostly iconic—enormous black cats representing Cleopatra’s court, a huge fascist eagle for Caesar’s—and he has also designed a back wall that opens Star Trekishly in a pyramidlike triangle for Egyptian scenes and a flattened rectangle for Roman ones. All very efficient. When a banquet table is required, a stagewide section of the flooring simply rises three feet in the air so the actors can prop their elbows on it.
Such spareness does not extend to Gabriel Berry’s wittily ostentatious costumes, which tart up those off-white Legionnaire uniforms with silver lame braidwork and drown the Egyptian court in the bright oranges, bilious greens, and electric aquamarines currently found in Gap sweater ads. Nor to the otherworldly rumblings, moans, and fanfares composed by sound designer Bruce Odland as a musical backdrop to the crowd scenes. At one point deep in the second act, patrons might easily conclude from the reaction of Caesar’s cringing troops, the weird glow cast by James F. Ingalls’ lighting, and the grinding mechanical roar loosed by Odland, that ancient astronauts were arriving to shake things up.
Under the circumstances, it’s salutary that the actors make the impressions they do. Hewitt has acquired a commanding stillness in the decade or so since he was a frisky leading man at Arena Stage, possibly as a result of his rigorous training with Japanese avant-garde director Tadashi Suzuki. In 1988 (the same year the other Tony and Cleo were playing with toy boats in their Folger Theater wading pool), Hewitt was starring in Suzuki’s The Tale of Lear at Arena, howling, roaring, stomping, and generally stylizing his performance to support the director’s emphasis on stability, the lower body, and the way actors’ feet come in contact with the ground.
At the Lansburgh, his Antony is solid and grounded enough that you figure Hewitt has long since internalized such concerns. Also sexy and appealing enough that it’s easy to understand why Cleopatra gets so antsy when he’s out of her sight. This Antony’s a bit of an operator, capable of snowing a doubting emperor with masculine bravado, a doubting girlfriend with nervous vulnerability, and doubting soldiers with drinking games (during one of which the director has him do a silly little Egyptian dance that somehow avoids seeming hopelessly fey).
Acton’s Caesar begins as Antony’s diametric opposite—a principled milquetoast who appears awestruck and awkward in the presence of so strong a personage—and then experiences a personality transplant at intermission to come back as a fiery leader. This is Shakespeare’s fault, not the actor’s, and Acton has found several clever ways to suggest that Caesar is developing a backbone even as he’s twisting in the plot’s early winds. That doesn’t mean Acton makes real sense of the changeover, but it keeps you interested in the process.
Carey’s Cleopatra initially vacillates so capriciously from seductive sweetness to hysteria that she seems not so much possessed of “infinite variety” as merely moody. And it doesn’t help that for most of the evening she’s sabotaged by costuming that makes her look alternately like a ’40s screen siren (iridescent clinging gowns) or a WAC with a Cleo ‘do. Only after Antony’s death does she really acquire much majesty, and even then the director throws obstacles in her way, making her die sitting up, for instance, in a backless throne.
Of the supporting cast, the strongest impressions are made by Edward Gero as an ally of Antony who agonizes over turning against his friend, and Makela Spielman (also a Washington City Paper receptionist) as Caesar’s frightened but ultimately courageous sister. There’s also a lot of beefcake on display on stage, as the director has his soldiers go shirtless (and in one case after a whipping, pantless) for no other reason than that they’re young and good-looking.
Daniels does a good enough job of making the play lively and character-based in its early stages that he needn’t really have resorted to such attention-grabbing gimmicks until the battle-heavy second half, but he has parceled them out pretty evenly. In fairness, the arc of the play becomes obvious just after intermission, and by somewhere around two hours into the three-hour evening the director is reduced to deliberately creating staging problems that he can then solve. The most outlandish task he sets himself is in Antony’s death scene, where Daniels places Cleopatra on a stairless platform some 10 feet above the stage and a mortally wounded Antony on the stage floor, so that various soldiers and hangers-on must fabricate an unlikely harness-and-pulley rig to bring them together. Patrons will be hard pressed by that time not to sense a director who’s searching rather desperately for both for a way to hold their interest…and for something to do.