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Floating Shakespeare

Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra directed by Peter Sellars '80 in and around Adams House Pool

By David B. Edelstein

PETER SELLARS has stroked a bold production of Antony and Cleopatra in the ghostly waters of Adams House Pool, with frigid temperatures and floating death cooling the flames of Shakespeare's most passionate tragedy. Not that it isn't lively--Sellars sustains the initial gimmick with scene after scene of slapstick splashing and general mayhem, but balances his off-the-wall antics with a sound sense of the appropriate; invention almost seems subordinate to the text. If it frequently resembles a circus, it is an indisputably Shakespearean circus, the Bard doing breast-stroke, the actors barnstorming with the kind of relish rarely unleashed in Harvard theater. It never approaches a tragedy of thought and feeling--it doesn't leave you numb (unless with the cold)--only surprised and which is saying a lot for swimming-pool Shakespeare.

First the pool, with the audience distributed in a horsehoe around it: at one end floats Cleopatra's sturdy raft; at the other, the diving board extends over the water like an erect phallus. Don't laugh--that's the intention. The board clearly conveys the perils of Antony's passion; the longer it gets, the more wobbly and precarious the position--man at his tallest and most triumphantly masculine, may in a second topple into the waves and be lost forever. All we miss is the Esther Williams schtick; what we get is Antony and Cleopatra shouting at each other from across the pool, their passions mingling in the sea-air, their bodies metaphorically pulled under by the whimsical undertow of Fortune; Cleopatra viciously dunking the poor schlemiel who swims out with the news of Antony's political marriage to Caesar's sister Octavia; Antony, Caesar, and Pompey carousing drunkenly on the eve of their battle, chucking each other off the raft with merry abandon; a broken, wasted Enobarbus sinking from his skeletal ladder into the shadowy waters, his body clutching at bones as it gently bobs on the surface.

SELLARS makes do far better than most directors do: he pokes incessantly at the perimeters of his playing area, his actors drenching his audience, or leading it out of the room altogether, into Rome (A-entry of Adams House) where power-mad politicians parade around in squares as they speak, and Antony no sooner marries a mummified Octavia than she is cast off into an echoing isolation chamber.

Now, if I be not aware that much of this is heavy-handed, I am a sous'd gurnet. But even if the play has been heavily cut, many scenes transposed, some themes unexplored, others smashed over your head, the trappings of this production are never less than fascinating: Sellars never lets his audience go. Maybe there's no reason for Enobarbus to make love to a character called Fortune (a fatalistic composite of minor officers, advisors and soothsayers), but then I'm not sure I understand the (flamboyantly) sensual Enobarbus of this production at all (although on his own terms, Topher Dow plays him quite well). And I can't discern much directorial interpretation of the forces compelling Antony's fall, the ability of lust and indolence to dissolve a man's will--although the magnetic pull of the games of one-upmanship is clear enough. That doesn't mean that Sellars hasn't worked these things out in his own head--his synopsis the program is full of cryptic notes like "A Nixon cameo," and "Enobarbus is Shakespeare," and, frankly, I don't have the vaguest idea what some of them mean. Maybe nothing and maybe everything.

Most of the acting is competent, with occasional flashes of inspiration. Ralph Zito misses some of the conflicts in Antony's nature--we rarely see him struggling with himself and then giving in--but he carries himself well, and his expressive voice capable of seemingly effortless changes in pitch and volume, projecting intensity of thought and feeling in quieter moments. James Bundy's Octavius Caesar strikes a few puzzlingly bfzarre, manic notes where he shrieks incomprehensibly and furiously rattles off his lines, but he successfully gives us a consumed, highly charged man of action. Dan Becker as the waterlogged messenger and David Johnson as Antony's loyal servant contribute modestly and well, and Bill Shebar playing Fortune, primly dressed in black, is a slimily ambiguous amalgamation of prophesies and pronouncements.

IN THE CENTER of this production, perhaps at the very center of nature herself, is Jenny Cornuelle's Cleopatra. Clearly the actress relishes this magnificent role; just as clearly she is worthy of it. The actress has a commanding presence, a voice of infinite shading and variety, a range of expression scarcely paralleled in this college theater. She can break character in high style, or sweep through the audience so that bodies part and heads turn. Her poetic eulogy to the fallen Antony is a cry of meaning to the gods; it is breathtaking.

Pity that "drainage problems" in the pool kept these actors out of their Nile last week--and this production from being reviewed while it was still running. Business was great, even without posters, even without reviews, and it was free. This Antony and Cleopatra can make no claims to greatness; the people who put it together had something less on their minds, and something more: a vigorous, probing, playful approach to college theater. You've missed the show; you'll hear from them again.

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