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STARTFORD, Conn.--The most significant aspect of the current is the fact that it is playing in repertory with Julius Caesar (reviewed here in a previous issue), whose story it continues. Thus one has the rare opportunity of seeing the pair of plays in order--even, as I did, in the course of one day.
Not only this, but both shows have been directed by Michael Kahn, who says they constitute "one work." They really don't, but not for want of separates the end of Caesar from the beginning of Antony, there was a gap of some seven or eight years in the writing, and the two works came out highly dissimilar dramatically and stylistically. Ceasar is austere in vocabulary, drivingly direct in line; Antony is verbally opulent and weak in plot. Caesar attempts less, does it magnificently, and is an enormously effective stage-piece; Antony embraces more than it can handle, with only intermittent success. Though Shakespeare never surpassed the poetry he poured into the later play, Antony is, skipping all over the place in a record number of 42 scenes, far from ideally suited to actual performance. We have here a linguistic masterpiece, but a theatrical failure.
It is a matter of eternal regret that Shakespeare never wrote a middle play to go with the other two. For it was during the interviewing months that Antony first met the Egyptian queen and allowed his professional career and moral duty to deteriorate. Here lay the stuff of real drama, the material for a play that could have been greater than either of the two Shakespeare left us.
Still, Kahn deserves high marks for trying to unify the two works. Both productions use the same basic raked stage, designed by Robin Wagner, and the Roman scenes in Antony enjoy the same upstage set as many of those in Caesar. Jane Greenwood's costumes for the Romans in both plays are the same or similar. And the three important characters who are present in both plays--Antony, Octavious, and Lepidus--have the virtue of being portrayed by the same actors.
Kahn cut quite a bit of text in Caesar. Although Antony is one of the longer plays in the canon, Kahn has made only a handful of tiny snips. He is to be commended for keeping the text almost intact, but censured at the same time for allowing so many scenes to drag. The result is a performance that, with one 15-minute intermission, runs to three and a half hours.
The stage history of Antony is almost entirely a lengthy parade of failures. The Festival's only previous involvement with the play, twelve years ago, made the dreadful mistake of importing Robert Ryan and Katherine Hepburn from Hollywood for the title roles. With all the good intentions in the world, these two players were hopelessly miscast in parts that require highly musical performers. This summer, Kahn has done better with his pair of lovers, but not well enough.
Paul Hecht is the current Antony, Young and smooth-shaven in Caesar, Hecht appears graying and bearded in the sequel, where he ages from 43 to 53. He looks fine in both plays. Vocally, however, he is unconvincing in Caesar. He is on the whole more persuasive in the second play. But in 22 scenes--and Hecht is not able to sustain his performance throughout. He nevertheless has some admirable moments--such as the nicely ruminative "There's a great spirit gone" passage; the speech beginning, "O sun, thy uprise shall I see no more and the point when his eyes go dull as he stabs himself following a false report of Cleopatra's death. Still, he does not live up to the bobility (or vestiges of it) ascribed to him by several of the other personages.
The role of Cleopatra has defeated almost all actresses who have essayed it. Among Americans, only Rose Eytinge was in full command of the part in the 19th century. When the play was mounted in 1937, the late John Mason Brown began his review with the celebrated comment, "Tallulah Bankhead barged down the Nile last night as Cleopatra--and sank." In modern times, only Katharine Cornell has been highly acclaimed by both critics and public (in the 1947-48 season), and even she was somewhat over-rated. (British acresses have managed only a little better.)
Cleopatra is the most multi-faceted of Shakespeare's women. Chameleonic and maddeningly inconsistent, she reflects at some point almost every trait and emotion in the book. Women yearn to tackle the part, for it is to an actress what Hamlet is to an actor: the ultimate test.
So now we have Salome Jens. She doesn't sink, but she's riding in an awfully leaky barge. Dorothy Parker once wrote that Katharine Hepburn gave a performance that "runs the gamut of emotions from A to B." Miss Jens extends the alphabet perhaps to E, but this just won't do for a role that requires A to Z. Cleopatra is described as a woman of "infinite variety," but Miss Jens approximates this only in her series of what must be nine or ten different--and resplendent--gowns created for her by Jane Greenwood.
Miss Jens is pretty enough to enact the Egyptian, who ages from 29 to 39. But she is not queenly, nor is she sexy. She does not embody the fatal allure that could pull Antony off his course in the way Dido waylaid Aeneas. Vocally, Miss Jens lacks a sense of rhythm and musicality.
Her most noticeable shortcoming is an utter lack of a sense of humor. "Can Fulvia die?, "which is one of the most deliciously sly questions in literature, emerges as nothing more than a request for the salt. Actresses and directors are possibly misled by all the scholars who keep trying to increase the "four great tragedies" by one. We are not gripped by Antony and Cleopatra as we are by Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and Lear; we remain relatively detached. In fact, there is enough satire in Antony to make it possible to stage the work as Shavian high comedy.
At any rate, Cleopatra's life should be fun; she must relish what she does in her anti-Roman freewheeling. She positively enjoys her self-inflicted death: and we are not saddened by it, but rather rejoice with her in thus outwitting Octavius. Miss Jens, however, traverses the play with little more than sober determination.
The role cries out for someone with the versatility, verve, sensuality, humor, and bearing of black actress Diana Sands. Which raises another point: although she is often described as pure Greek, the historical Cleopatra was actually of racially mixed ancestry and would today be classified as Negro. The opening speech of Shakespeare's play calls her "tawny," and she even refers to herself as "black."
If the Festival debuts of Paul Hecht and Salome Jens fall short of one's hopes, the same cannot be said of the debut here of Philip Kerr, who plays Octavius in both Caesar and Antony. His is classical acting of the first order. His three scenes as a 20-year-old in Caesar are enough to indicate his cool command of his craft. In Antony he has 13 scenes as the young triumvir who emerges victorious and will soon become Emperor Augustus. Kerr's acorn grows into a strong Oak.
Kerr already displayed a notable talent as a Harvard undergraduate in the early sixties. Following advanced training in London, he has been performing many roles in the Midwest and far West, including major Shakespearean ones. All this experience has paid off. His classical delivery is impeccable, his mean mien expressive, his ruthless efficiency chilling. And his "moiety of the world" speech is a lesson in how to make the most of the extraordinary poetic diction that permeates this play. This is a gem of a performance--one that dazzles with the sharp and cold gleam of a sapphire. It is, simply, head and shoulders above every other performance in the show, and by itself worth a trip to behold.
In both plays, William Larsen is capable as the weakest of the triumvirs, Lepidus, and his tippling aboard Pompey's ship is amusing. Lee Richardson's Enobarbus is strangely disengaged from its context, and his voice is not musical enough for what are some of the most gorgeous passages ever penned. Michael Levin's Pompey, Steve Karp's Menas. Joseph Maher's Agrippa, and Joseph Lambie's Eros are among those who need more vocal guidance. Peter Thompson scores points as the once-bitten-talee shy Messenger, and Rosalind Harris is properly sweet as Octavia.
Robin Wagner has well captured the contrast between stern Rome and luxuriant Egypt in his sets; especially striking are the warm golds that adorn Alexandria, and the 15-foot-high double columns that support Cleopatra's monument--all skillfully lit by Marc Weiss. John Morris's music is markedly better than what he provided for Caesar, though it is still a bit obvious in its quasi-exotic effects.
Despite all the things wrong with this Antony and Cleopatra it was worth doing--particularly as a companion piece to Julius Caesar and as a vehicle for Philip Kerr's Octavius, which we are not likely ever to see excelled.
A rattling good production of a ripsnorting play is rounding out the American Shakespeare Festival's summer schedule. For the seventh season in a row, one non-repertory. This time it is Major Barbara, one of Shaw's most brilliant achievements.
As Shaw so loved to do, he here took a plausible intellectual position, and proceeded to push it to an outrageous extreme in order to scandalize his audience, while at the same time treating it to a devastating display of wit. Shaw's mouthpiece is Andrew Undershaft, a munitions manufacturer, who holds that mankind's worst crime is poverty, that punishment should be abolished, and that the only two things necessary for salvation are money and gunpowder. Opposed to him is his daughter, a major in the Salvation Army, whose wrestling of conscience are the heart of the play.
Director Edwin Sherin has elicited a remarkable set of performances from his fourteen main characters, with only two exceptions. Lee Richardson's Undershaft is best of all-forceful and unshakeable from start to finish. (And he really plays the prescribed tune from Doninetti's Lucia on a trombone). Lady Brit is his separated wife, a woman given to bossing and tossing off epigrams--clearly modeled on Lady Bracknell in Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, written a decade earlier. Jan Miner, in a performance that brings to mind Jessica Tandy, is doing in this role far and away he finest work I have ever seen from her.
Edward Herrmann (looking like a youthful Charles de Gaulle), Maadelon Thomas and John Tillinger are all entertaining and splendidly idiosyncratic as members of the household's younger generation. As the Barbara of the title, Jane Alexander is appealing enough; but she does not summon up sufficient ardor and commitment to offset her father, so that the play is thrown slightly off balance.
The one failure in the cast is Peter Thompson, who portrays Adolphus, professor of Greek and Barbara's fiance. Shaw fashioned the role as an affectionate parody of the great Classics scholar and translator Gilbert Murray. Thompson, surrounded by players with flawless British accents, comes out as thoroughly American. It is as though someone like Henry Fonda were to pop up in the middle of the Old Vic company.
When we move to Salvation Army headquarters, we find another group of characters, all of whom speak carefully nurtured low-class accents. Phillip Kerr is outstanding as the mustachioed cockney Bill Walker--swaggering, snarling, pugnacious, unrepenteat. His performance is all the more impressive for managing to obliterate every trace of his work as Octavius in the two Shakespeare plays. As the starving Peter, Joseph Maher is eloquent whether silent or speaking.
William Ritman has ingeniously solved the problem of whisking us from Lady Brit's lovely house, with its profusion of potted plants, to the makeshift Army shelter and, later, to Undershaft's foundry, with its gigantic experimental cannon. And Jane Greenwood has provided appropriate Edwardian costumes.
I do have to voice my annoyance at the director's unwillingness to trust Shaw's text. For some reason he felt it advisable to alter a number of phrases and to make some substantial cuts in the latter portion of the script. Gone are the remarks about Undershaft's Jewish partner Lasarus; gone are some delectable barbs aimed at Parliament; gone is Adolphus's philosophizing about power. Surely, Mr. Sheria, in a performance that runs two hours and twenty minutes, we could hold our seats for ten minutes more. But thanks for doing so well with what you consented to give us.
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