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Sex, sizzle, subtleties lost in Anthony and Cleopatra

Amy Thone is Cleopatra Credit: John Ulman

John Langs isn’t the first director to choose weird and confusing costuming for a Shakespearean play and he probably won’t be the last. But one of the most egregious problems — hardly the only one — with his production of Antony and Cleopatra is the cast’s attire.

Cleopatra’s wardrobe ranges from a flowing Egyptian-style robe to a Goth-like minidress accessorized with black tights and knee high boots. Antony shows up first in a caftan, then switches to modern-day army gear and work boots.

In his initial entry, Octavius appears to have just finished a marathon in his spandex shorts, black workout jacket and ubiquitous water bottle. Darragh Kennan (Octavius) does an impressive series of pushups. But if Langs intends to show Octavius as über macho man, he’s chosen a bizarre, anachronistic way of doing so.

The costuming problems continue throughout the play. Caesar’s Roman soldiers look like Navy officers from some indeterminate period in the past; Antony’s contingent appear to be Palestinian desert warriors, complete with keffiyahs; and Pompey and his troops resemble escapees from an L.A. motorcycle gang.

In a play like Antony and Cleopatra, with its many settings and many competing forces, costume is essential to keeping the action clear.

That is difficult enough with this particular cast’s general inability to make Shakespeare’s words understandable. When the problem is compounded by such visual confusion, this Antony and Cleopatra becomes almost incomprehensible. Rather than trying to understand the various characters’ political motives, I spent my energy attempting to figure out the meaning of what they were wearing.

As problematic as the costuming is, Langs’ other creative decisions are equally so. The battle scenes are choreographed more like a dance work than a fight and lack any verisimilitude. The soothsayer wanders in and out as if he doesn’t know where he is nor what he is doing there. The sand pit inserted into the stage floor is far too cramped to suggest an authentic Egyptian terrain and the “treasures” that Cleopatra lards on a messenger look like cheap trinkets from Archie McPhee’s.

Another problem is Langs’ casting choices and the way that he has directed the actors, with few exception, to scream their lines.

In a play that hinges on the sexual appeal and political authority of Cleopatra, Amy Thone is sorely miscast. For one thing, she is simply too old to be believable as the 39-year old Egyptian queen; her age is emphasized further by costumes which reveal a little too much skin. A larger issue is that her Cleopatra is more a harridan than a seductress and her sexual interplay with Antony takes on a cartoonish quality. Only in her final scene, as she prepares to die, does Thone become the tragic figure whose downfall is as great as that of her lover Antony.

In fairness, the role of Cleopatra is a challenging one. She is simultaneously vain, histrionic and regal. But Thone captures only the most shrill of Cleopatra’s qualities, making it hard to understand why, after having left her and remarried, Antony feels compelled to return to her embrace.

Although Hans Altweis (Thone’s husband in real life) physically looks the swaggering Antony with his bulging biceps, he shouts rather than feels his lines. The role of Antony, like that of Cleopatra, is not an easy one. Alternately lovesick and bellicose, Shakespeare’s Antony is caught up in complex politics at home, yet pulled as if by magnetic force to the formidable queen of Egypt.

But Altweis’ Antony is almost entirely bombast, and those rare moments where he plays the gentle lover do not ring true. That’s the fault not just of Altweis’ acting but his lack of chemistry with Thone. It’s not unusual for a real-life couple to lack sexual energy on-stage or on-screen, and that is certainly true here. As Antony and Cleopatra, Altweis and Thone don’t seem able to strike a spark — let alone ignite a bonfire — between them.

The greatest problem by far with this Antony and Cleopatra, however, is the inability of most of the actors to make sense of Shakespeare’s extraordinary language. Apart from Kennan and Allison Strickland (underutilized as Cleopatra’s servant Iris), the other cast members so miss the cadence and intonation of Shakespeare’s words that following the play and its emotional implications becomes impossible.

Of course, everyone knows the general outline of this story, and it is reasonable to assume that a production from Seattle Shakespeare Company will enhance our appreciation of it. The troupe typically does a fine job of giving the Bard’s antiquated verbiage contemporary relevance, which is no mean task. But in this case the company has fallen far short. One hopes and expects that this is only a temporary lapse.

If you go: Antony and Cleopatra, Seattle Shakespeare Company at Intiman Playhouse, 201 Mercer Street, through November 18. Tickets $36-$40, at the box office, by phone (206) 733-8222 or online at www.seattleshakespeare.com.

 

 

 

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