“Let it be done”. The Heart of America Shakespeare Festival celebrated its twentieth anniversary by producing Shakespeare’s classical tragedy, Antony and Cleopatra, for the first time. In this Jacobean drama, several intriguing themes could have been assessed: Roman politics, the rise of Rome’s first emperor, the religio-mythology concerning Antony and Cleopatra, the enigmatic world of Egypt, and the tragedy that accompanies undying love.
Director Sidonie Garrett rather highlights the liberal and provocative character of Cleopatra (Kim Martin-Cotten), a variation on tragic love. Instead of Mark Antony (John Rensenhouse) being a tragic hero, this production transforms Cleopatra into one. In the very least, if not a hagiography, Cleopatra is afforded much attention in this rendition. And what a delightful and instructive rendition it is.
In the drama’s first main scene, Cleopatra and Antony wantonly frolic and flirt. Quite vividly, their great passion for one another is unequivocally underscored. In fact, in a matter of minutes Antony manages to kiss Cleopatra’s neck, position his face in her bosom, and encourage her to lie almost submissively on her back—all in or perchance for good sport.
Principals Martin-Cotten and Rensenhouse re-implement the unabashed eroticism and physicality that each brought to last summer’s production, Macbeth. There is a relative similarity to the Lady Macbeth-Macbeth dynamic indeed: Cleopatra’s ostensible insatiable nature must lead to the unmitigated ruin of Antony, and therefore the entire Roman Republic.
Notwithstanding, Cleopatra loses her entire Egyptian empire and her life in this affair, too. Is it too far-fetched to consider Cleopatra a tragic heroine? After all, she chooses to form an alliance—political and otherwise—with Antony; and it is that basic tactical decision that eventually leads to her downfall.
In her historical study of Cleopatra, Stacy Schiff notes: “A commanding woman versed in politics, diplomacy, and governance; fluent in nine languages; silver-tongued and charismatic, Cleopatra nonetheless seems the joint creation of Roman propagandists and Hollywood directors”. Can one bypass the propagandists, including the Bard himself? Can one show a tragic Cleopatra with any efficacy?
Martin-Cotten’s Queen of Egypt does just that: Antony is the fatal man. Cleopatra is a powerful, intimidating figure in a masculine, Roman world; she is unusually loud-voiced and calculating but also contradictory in that she is also impulsive, vulnerable, and emotional. Most of the drama’s standout scenes are dominated by her unique presence, especially in the first half. This is in large part due to Martin-Cotten’s insightful, piercing, and, to be sure, mesmerizing portrayal.
And when Cleopatra is onstage one never knows exactly what to expect. For instance, Cleopatra lambastes Antony for his hypocritical devotion to his late wife, Fulvia. Cleopatra’s temperament varies from critical, palpable anger to a genuine sense of hurtful vulnerability. Moreover, when Cleopatra learns about Antony’s political marriage to Octavia, Cleopatra becomes violent and nearly assaults the messenger slave; Cleopatra subsequently obsesses over Octavia.
Since Cleopatra is given so much attention, Antony’s psychomachia is a bit overshadowed, despite the parallel meltdown scenes. But Kansas City native Rensenhouse nicely encapsulates the self-conscious, livid, and, at times, contemplative Antony—such as when his rebel-warrior wife, Fulvia, has died and, later, when he determines that Cleopatra has failed or deceived him. Antony is torn between his duty as a Roman general and his pleasure with Cleopatra in Alexandria.
But in this rendition, Mark Antony is not so much a tragic hero as a pathetic individual. His old-age and his incompetence are surely recognized: he misjudges Octavian’s military strength and Machiavellian inclination and also allows Cleopatra to lead a ship at sea. Furthermore, Antony cannot properly commit suicide, per the Roman manner. Antony does not seem like any godlike general; he seems a has-been. Cleopatra is forever infatuated nonetheless.
The incredulous Enobarbus (Bruce Roach) also disapproves of Antony’s decision to engage in an affair with Cleopatra, a woman ruler and, too, a woman from the East. For Enobarbus, Antony has effectively emasculated himself because he has chosen hedonism over virtue and Roman duty. Octavian (Jason Chanos) coldly and efficiently overtakes Antony and Cleopatra in the Battle of Actium, and in so doing he displays little to no personality. For Octavian, this war is all about a methodical power-grab; he will eventually become Caesar Augustus, Rome’s first emperor.
After Antony stabs himself in act four, a pulley-type device is utilized to bring Antony, bleeding, to Cleopatra in her monument; this is an extraordinary bit of theatre, and it is likely modeled on a nineteenth-century painting. Also, Cleopatra’s death scene was well-staged: The Queen of Egypt asks to be dressed appropriately before succumbing to the worm of the Nile, the mortal asp. Therefore a lavish crown is placed on her head and she puts on an elegant robe, Cleopatra spreads her arms out much like a peacock would, and her robe betrays its several colors. Costume designer Mary Traylor and scenic designer Gene Friedman deserve credit for these two noteworthy scenes.
In a word, this is a fine, daring, and intelligent production.