Antony and Cleopatra, directed by Joe Falocco for Poor Shadows of Elysium at the Curtain Theater, Austin, Texas, 4 May 2014.
Reviewed by Joseph F. Stephenson (Abilene Christian University)
Though Antony and Cleopatra is certainly no obscure, little-known Shakespearean play, it is in fact not very often performed outside the major professional companies in large cities. First, it requires some good actors (though, sadly, that requirement has not halted many a poor production of Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet from being raised). Second, it is a very unwieldy piece in its Folio form, exceeding three thousand lines, fifty characters, forty scenes, and three hours—more if scenery is moved each time the scene changes from Egypt to Rome. In Poor Shadows of Elysium’s Spring 2014 production, the acting ensemble, led by Kevin Gates and Bridget Farias in the title roles, more than adequately met the first challenge. Meanwhile, director Joe Falocco performed some fairly major surgery on the script, removing 750 lines and eight scenes to keep the running time down to 2:20, including interval. More on both of these fronts later.
The third major challenge the play presents is that two scenes, rather atypically for Shakespeare, require some tricky staging. As long as his company remained at the Globe, Shakespeare seems instinctively to have avoided spectacle that would require complicated technology: the on-stage hangings, fire breathing devils, and even torture by strappado that can be found in non-Shakespearean plays of the period—including those that Shakespeare’s own company performed—are mostly absent from the Shakespeare corpus. (Perhaps he learned his lesson early on after writing a part for a dog in Two Gentlemen of Verona and some gory spectacle in Titus Andronicus to let the language bear the burden and keep the staging successfully simple.) In Antony and Cleopatra, however, Shakespeare seems to have come upon a detail in his source that, as Gurr and Ichikawa report in Staging in Shakespeare’s Theatres “proved irresistible,” despite its demands on the company and its theater (63). Plutarch reports that, when men carried the wounded Antony to her, “Cleopatra her owne self, with two women only” pulled Antony up to the “high windows” of her monument (qtd. in Gurr and Ichikawa 63). Shakespeare follows Plutarch closely: After making it clear at the beginning of the scene that Cleopatra’s monument is located at the Globe’s upper stage—“Enter Cleopatra and her maids aloft”—the next stage direction reads “They heave Antony aloft.” When Shakespeare’s Globe staged an all-male production of the play in 1999, the muscular Mark Rylance as Cleopatra and his broad-shouldered “maids” raised Paul Shelley to the upper stage with no trouble, using a block and tackle. Some productions nowadays sidestep the difficulty by locating Cleopatra’s monument on a platform inches above the main stage where no ropes are required to raise Anthony to the women’s level. Falocco, however, like Shakespeare, could not resist the potential for spectacle this scene offered. The Curtain Theatre, a smaller-scale replica of the Globe (or, perhaps, an approximate replica of the first Rose) is equipped with a trap door in the heavens, through which the requisite machinery awaits. With the aid of a body harness, a carabiner hook, and some safety rope, Gates as Antony was raised quite steadily and convincingly at Cleopatra’s command. However, since the work was done by actors located out of view above the heavens, Cleopatra’s cries to her maids to help “draw [Antony] up” did not really make sense. All three women merely stood at the railing and waited for Antony to be raised to their level. Perhaps adding some secondary ropes could have allowed the maids to appear to obey their queen’s commands and preserve the remarkable image of the women’s raising of the powerless Roman man by their Egyptian female strength.
The upper stage clearly established as the monument, and Cleopatra having secured herself there, the next opportunity for impressive spectacle comes when the Roman soldiers arrive and take Cleopatra his prisoner at this line: “You see how easily she may be surprised.” Of course, the Roman soldiers could simply storm onto the upper stage via the usual—backstage—entrance, but that would be a bit anticlimactic. Some sort of access over the balustrade is ideal. Plutarch mentions a ladder, but Falocco took his cue from the 1972 film directed by Charlton Heston, in which large shields were held at progressively higher levels by the soldiers, and Proculeius used them as stairs to run up to the upper stage and take Cleopatra. In this production, the exceptionally athletic Adam Marrero seemed barely to need the shields, fairly vaulting up to the balustrade and pulling himself over while Cleopatra—not to mention the audience—watched in amazement.
Falocco gave a pre-show talk in which he told the audience that this production would be accomplished more or less “as Shakespeare’s company would have done it” with approximately fifteen actors, limited set pieces, and no electronic effects. Falocco perhaps forgot that the Original Practices crowd has been fairly careful for some time to say the OP performances approximate how the plays could (rather than would) have been performed; also, any clear exceptions to early modern performance conditions are usually noted. The major exception that should have been mentioned—and this is not to say that the exception should not have been made—was the presence of women in the cast. Falocco told the audience correctly that Shakespeare’s company engaged in extensive doubling and tripling, but it was nonetheless a bit disconcerting to see a character exit as one character and almost immediately re-enter as another, and though Falocco explained that characters loyal to Rome would wear red armbands while those loyal to Egypt would wear blue, this practice was not universally or uniformly (as to shade of color) followed, leading to a bit of confusion. However, the actors did manage to imbue their separate major characters with separate vocal timbres, accents, and demeanors very successfully. Heath Thompson’s soldierly Enobarbus and his mealy-mouthed Dolabella were quite distinct, despite the fact that neither his person nor his costume changed much between the two characters.
Another rather important departure from the early modern practice deserves comment. Falocco’s pre-show speech noted the mostly bare stage, with upper and lower platforms, and directed the audience’s special attention to the three entrances: right, left, and center. However, during the performance, characters entered the stage from the yard, ascending steps up right, up left, and down center. This non-original practice—which is ubiquitous at this venue and, sadly, at many similar venues, including the Globe—is attractive to modern directors who seek to establish some sort of literal common ground between the actors and the audience, but it is regrettable in a production which touts its adherence to Shakespearean stage conditions. Using the existing stage doors could have enhanced the production by associating one of the side entrances with Rome and one with Egypt, thereby reinforcing the central contrast around which the play is built.
The costumes, designed by Cherie Weed, were generally quite serviceable, and the chosen palette pleasing. Both of Cleopatra’s gowns looked stunning on the equally stunning Farias, and her headdress, designed and constructed by Jennifer Davis, was exquisite. Less pleasing were Antony’s rather ill-fitting shiny robe and cut-off hiking pants; moreover, the display of assorted modern elastic waistbands and bra straps around the edges of the costumes was a bit distracting. However, live music on appropriate instruments, under the direction of Craig Sheffield, enhanced the production greatly.
Returning to the issue of the script, Falloco’s cut version kept things moving along nicely, while still preserving every well-known line in the play. The production did not suffer from the seasickness caused by rapid-fire shifts between Egypt and Rome in many productions during Act 4. It is no surprise, though, that in cutting about a quarter of the words in the play, some of the transitions are left a bit abrupt. More significantly, this stripped-down version, while keeping the plot clear by necessity, seems to make the play about the plot to an unfortunate degree. The dual themes of power and love (which Gates as artistic director writes eloquently about on the company website) are issues that need bit of time to mellow in the audience’s mind. While many productions of Shakespeare nowadays could benefit from trimming ten minutes off, this performance might have been more effective with ten minutes of non-plot-related text restored. The themes of the play might also have received greater emphasis by placing the interval at a different point. Coming after Act 3, scene 6, the audience is left in Rome with Caesar and Octavia, whereas if it had come one scene (five minutes) later, the audience would have been invited to think and talk about the title characters during the break.
Gates and Farias showed the progress of the title relationship quite well, with petty love games in the first act evolving into fateful decisions in the fourth. The chemistry between the two was very realistic—indeed, their wedding was celebrated in the theater shortly before one of the play’s performances. When Farias delivered the line “I little thought you would have followed,” the putdown of Antony was enough to make men in the audience wince. Though Gates appeared a bit too young to sustain the play’s references to “white” and “grizzled” hair, his Antony was masculine and politically aware—as long as he was absent from Cleopatra. Though his attempted suicide came off as a bit comic, it was a smart move to leave room for Cleopatra’s later scene, which must not seem anticlimactic. Kudos to Farias for not overdoing it, but her death scene could have sustained a bit more pathos, and perhaps a more impressive rubber snake. Nevertheless, her choice to address her final line—“Nay, I will take thee too”—to Antony, whom she seems to see in a vision, rather than to a second snake was exquisitely poignant.
Not to take anything away from the powerful performances of Gates and Farias, the biggest (at least on a literal level) star of the evening was the marvelous Curtain Theatre. Nestled among the wilds of Richard Garriot’s lakeside estate in west Austin, the Curtain deserves recognition as one of the world’s few quality reproductions of a Shakespearean outdoor theater. The ritualistic lighting of the torches on either side of the stage before the show starts can bring excited coos from audience members. The stage looks smooth and sturdy after its recent refurbishing at the hands of The Baron’s Men, the Curtain’s home company (and the company where many of the actors in this show cut their teeth in the Austin theater scene). The acoustics are close to perfect, and hearing the words of the greatest poet in the English language blend evocatively with the call of a whippoorwill as the crescent moon rises over the roof of this beautiful structure is an experience not to be missed. With performances of this caliber staged at such a unique venue—and many other excellent productions by other companies at other venues—Austin is becoming a prime location for Shakespeare in North America.
Joseph F. Stephenson earned his Ph.D. from the University of Connecticut and is an Associate Professor of English at Abilene Christian University. His scholarship focuses on early modern drama in performance, including a recent article in Parergon on the anonymous 1599 play A Larum for London. In Abilene, Joe teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in British literature (especially Shakespeare) and is the resident dramaturg for the Abilene Shakespeare Festival. In Austin, he works as the resident dramaturg for 7 Towers Theatre.
 Gurr, Andrew, and Mariko Ichikawa. Staging in Shakespeare’s Theatres. Oxford: Oxford U P, 2000. Print. Oxford Shakespeare Topics.