Folger’s Close Up ‘Antony and Cleopatra’

Cleopatra_069 - webA condensed “Antony and Cleopatra” at the Folger Theatre still has time for a couple of ensemble dance numbers straight out of “Solid Gold,” a battle scene that’s almost as well choreographed and a whole lot of kissing.

There’s no questioning the physical attraction between Cody Nickell’s Antony and Shirine Babb’s Cleopatra. As the play begins, he’s in a kind of postcoital haze, his face painted up as the result of some kind of makeup sharing experiment. When they’re not kissing, she is jumping onto him and locking her legs. Even the fights seem merely preliminary sessions for makeup makeout sessions.

But in this production directed by Robert Richmond, the staging is almost as important as anything else because for the first time in memory in a performance space painstakingly replicating an Elizabethan stage, this production is played in the round. Its splendors are made clear right away. Even if one doesn’t have to practically step around the actors (postcoital haze already in progress) to get to a seat, the actors are vividly near, rather than on some removed proscenium. Even if an actor has a back turned, only to be facing your way a second later, it puts the viewer almost inside the action as it unfolds before us.

And in Tony Cisek’s set design, Cleopatra’s lair is marked by a circular bed; but the palatial centers of Rome and Alexandria are marked with a triangle on the floor of the circle, which, yes, does spin for effect every so often. In Rome, the voices of the soldiers also echo, as if in some cold palace. Above, the angles of the official symbols below are eroded in a floating trapezoidal sculpture above.

To say the production begins casually goes beyond tiptoeing past the actors; everyone on stage is not only dancing around with their whispy drapes, they are all also barefoot. Only when the Roman soldiers show up asking what’s up is there footwear appear. But even then, their armor is a softer leather instead of metal – earthier, and easy to appreciate closer up as well.

Love may be a many splendored thing but it can mess up international relations – none more than this classic merger, which is minus more than two dozen of its original characters.

The important ones are left, though. Dylan Paul plays an especially youthful Octavius Caesar, the lock of hair on his forehead suggesting a Kennedy lineage. But he doesn’t like where this coupling is taking things (in reality competitions, couples are always the first targets).

The battle at sea may be the riskiest staging of the show, but with Andrew F. Griffin’s lights and the movement of the actors, it’s vivid and clear what happens. Adam Stamper’s music and sound design lend the production its most sleekly modernist touch.

And if the kisses are big in this A&C, the poisonous asp used by Cleopatra in the tragedy’s end is untheatrically small; more like a infectious earthworm. A minor end to such a grand queen of her day – made just so in the sumptuous gold costumes of Mariah Hale, who keeps Antony in leather pants and puffy shirt. That Cleo appears in act two in a shorter bob with bangs truer to the Egyptian style (depicted in hieroglyphs anyway) than the dreads in act one, is a little jolting.

Of the others that swarmed around the two, standouts in the cast were those who tried something different with the text, from Nigel Gore, who added a whisper to his brogue, to Simone Elizabeth Bart, who added a kind of vocal fry to her lady in waiting.

But everybody was quite good and the intimate “Antony & Cleopatra” delivers its story that if nothing else is about intimacy.

 

“Antony and Cleopatra” runs through Nov. 19 at the Folger Theatre, Washington DC.

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