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Victorian 'Antony and Cleopatra' Solves Original Play's Problems

ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA Agassiz Theatre Directed by Timothy D. Foley '98 Produced by Rachel E. Sexton '00 and Cathy A. Saenz '00 playing through Sun., Jan. 11


Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra has frequently been called a "problem play." The characters do not fit into familiar Shakespearean molds, and the play itself refuses to be classified as a simple history, tragedy or romance. An excellent cast under the masterful direction of Timothy Foley '98 has capitalized on Antony and Cleopatra's uniqueness, foregone Shakespearean stereotypes and assimilated a production that is not at all problematic.

Posters for the production advertise it as "a new vision," one which will shock those familiar with the play's often lush productions. Foley's Antony and Cleopatra's is set in the Victorian Age, and Cleopatra's Egypt is a drab bedroom furnished only with a frumpy wooden four-poster bed. Instead of flowing and exotic garments, Cleopatra and her two dowdy maidservants wear corsets and stiff, dull-colored Victorian dresses with high collars.

Antony's Rome is equally unexpected. Triumvirate members Antony, Caesar and Lepidus meet around a heavy, morbid table behind a map of the Mediterranean region painted on the floor. The room has no walls, and one imagines it, like any proper war room, to be smoke-filled and poorly-lit. Like the soldiers in HRDC's fall production of Macbeth, members of Caesar's forces are dressed in tuxedos.

New vision and all, however, the story is still the same. Those who call it a romance say it focuses on the passionate love affair between Antony (Noah Feinstein '98) and Cleopatra (Erin Billings '00); people who think it a tragedy dwell on Antony's fatal flaw; and historians remember it for the end battle of Actium, which marks the end of the Hellenistic Age and beginning of the Roman Empire. As Foley's interpretation sees it, however, Antony and Cleopatra follows Antony's infatuation with Cleopatra and a long line of her betrayals: first, when she aligns herself with Caesar; second, when she withdraws her ship in the midst of battle and leads Antony to a shameful retreat; and finally, when she sends fraudulent news of her suicide to lure Antony back to her palace but drives him instead to his own death. Intermingled are the tragic stories of Antony's two wives--Fulvia and Caesar's sister Octavia (Margaret Hulce '01)--and his faithful accomplice Eros (also played by Hulce). Octavius Caesar (David Egan '00) broods over the play like a wise, omnipresent deity.

The characters in the play are, as critics have stated, difficult to capture; they are inherently slippery. Billings' flighty and fidgety Cleopatra, the play's only recongnizable character, is marvelously coquettish; Cleopatra--an Egyptian Scarlett O'Hara--is as equally lovable as she is despicable. She seductively coos to Antony in one instant, while in the next scene she drives a messenger to his knees with a gun to his head after he delivers bad news.

Superficiality aside, though, Cleopatra is the play's central character. While other characters and especially Antony himself seem to speak in a vacuum, characters react to her words and bend themselves to her minutest whims. Only Caesar seems to know that flattery is the sole path to Cleopatra's mind and motivations.

Caesar appears at first to be an emblem of the strong, silent type who sits at the war room table and speaks in slow, measured syllables. Had Egan's character not developed through the play, he would still have maintained a powerful presence. Egan's Caesar, however, shows an intensely emotional side to his character in his dealings with sister Octavia. Before her wedding to Antony, Caesar speaks to her with a remarkable tenderness that stands in strong--but not incongruous--contrast to his unfeeling military persona.

The other characters seem mute and unable to connect with each other; Antony has to filter his decisions through Cleopatra's ultimate judgment and there are moments when no one listens at all when he speaks. Even Antony's friend Eros, to avoid a verbal disagreement with Antony when he orders her to kill him, kills herself instead. Feinstein's Antony is memorable and portrayed excellently, but the helplessness of his character makes one view his emotional tirades like those of a child. Everyone, save Cleopatra and Caesar, seems to float alone through the story, which is why the Victorian setting works perfectly. The sterility and repressed nature of the Victorian era bridges the characters; this stiff society would not have acknowledged such gaps in personal relationships.

Antony and Cleopatra is accompanied almost constantly by foreboding, drum-heavy music. Several scenes in which the music is played over long stretches of dialog have a cinematic feel. The best of these occurs at the end of the first half, when a paternal Caesar is seen comforting Octavia after Antony has left her for Cleopatra. This touching scene is juxtaposed to Antony and Cleopatra's silent, silhouetted reunion in Egypt on the upper stage and is accompanied by heart-wrenchingly gorgeous plano music. This scene projects the play's unity and enunciates this cast's unswerving dedication to the individual characters.

In the end, this well-directed and well-acted production achieves the best of all three scholarly visions of the play. It exudes historical significance, thoroughly explores Antony and Cleopatra's relationship, but succeeds best in conveying tragedy--not only Antony's, but everyone's.

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