Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Shakespeare's Anthony and Cleopatra with Bells and Whistles
Less than half a century BCE, the victorious Octavius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Lepidus (the Second Triumvirate) each rule a section of the of the Roman Empire. Antony and the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra are embroiled in an open, tempestuous, and passionate love affair. Antony receives a message that his wife Fulvia has died in Rome. There, in order to strengthen his alliance with Octavius, Antony marries his sister Octavia, orbiting Cleopatra into exorbitant rage. That is, until Antony gets the opportunity to demonstrate to her that she remains his consuming passion. Betrayals and battles abound among the Triumvirate and Pompey, who has challenged their rule (all of this is helpfully detailed in a synopsis which you will find in your program). Eventually, Octavius turns on Cleopatra and Antony whose misguided armies fall before him. However, Octavius cannot untie their bond. The "tragic" dénouement will remind you of Romeo and Juliet, despite the fact that Antony and his Cleo are cut from coarser cloth.
Esau Pritchett lets out all the stops in a hot-blooded, passionate portrayal of Antony. The natural flow and clarity of his speech is first rate American Shakespeare. Thus, it feels churlish to note the conundrum created when his size (he is six foot, six) and powerful presence dominate and overwhelm antagonists who on the page are as powerful and more powerful than he is.
Nicole Ari Parker is a coquettish, manipulative and powerful Cleopatra with the mettle to stand up to Pritchett's Antony. She is also a fine American Shakespearean actor. As Cleopatra's ultimate loyalty to Antony is at odds with the Cleopatra we have come to know over the course of the play, Shakespeare has not given Parker a Cleopatra who moves and touches us.
Among the able company, several of whom play multiple roles, Zainab Jab as Charmian, Cleopatra's attendant and confidante, and Mairin Lee as Octavia (and Iras, another Cleopatra attendant) stand out.
Daniel Ostling's set consists of five massive, irregularly shaped free-standing gold panels surrounding a golden platform. Their size and grandeur frame the play powerfully. Additionally, when the two panels that seem to peek through from the rear are darkened or removed during the play's final scenes, the black space creates a sense of the funereal darkness of a tomb. I did miss the presence of scenic elements to differentiate scenes in the East from those in Rome.
Most impressive of all is the soundscape and original music of Mark Bennett which features the extended aurally and visually thrilling performance of percussionist Mark Katsaounis. These bells and whistles are the most powerful and compelling aspects of Emily Mann's production. Drums of many varieties (conga drum, snare drum, et al.), tubular bells, gongs, Lord knows what else, with stunning amplified effects. A show worth seeing and hearing in and of itself, yet always enhancing, even at times, carrying the play.
Antony and Cleopatra might be described as a high class potboiler, but with Esau Pritchett, Nicole Ari Parker and the super soundscape keeping the pot boiling and overflowing, the invention and intensity of this production carries the day.
Antony and Cleopatra continues performances (Evenings: Tuesday-Thursday & Sunday 7:30 pm/ Friday & Saturday 8 pm/ Mats: Saturday 3 pm; Sunday 2 pm) through October 5, 2014, at the McCarter Theatre Center (Berlind Theatre), 91 University Place, Princeton 08540. Box Office: 609-258-2787; online: www.mccarter.org.
Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare; directed by Emily Mann