What a gorgeous couple they are! Mark Antony (Neal Bledsoe) is movie-star handsome; not every man could pull off the light colored sport shirt-harem pants combination, but Bledsoe sure does—he looks ready to rock the beach at Portofino or Saint-Tropez. And just wait till you see Nondumiso Tembe’s Cleopatra, absolutely killing it in a smashing white tailored suit with caped jacket, complemented by gold stilettos. (Gold will be Cleo’s signature color.)
Alas, nearly three hours later, neither Antony nor Cleopatra have distinguished themselves beyond this initial visual.
Instead, both give conspicuously small-scale performances in director Eleanor Holdridge’s busy but empty and self-consciously clever production. So many things happen… and to so little effect.
If the politics emerge as convoluted (admittedly, that’s partially the playwright’s fault), here even more damage is done by too much winking at the comic elements. Things begin to go wrong early, when the announcement of Fulvia’s death is greeted with an almost universal sense of relief, including by her widower, Antony himself. (As she’s treated here, think of Fulvia, whom we never see, as the play’s Maris Crane)
There are many legitimate reasons to dislike Antony, but in Bledsoe portrayal, he’s gauche and shallow from the start—diminished before he’s even established.
It’s not just Bledsoe. Glib, facile character sketches are Holdridge’s fatal mistake throughout. I have no problem with updating Shakespeare settings (Holdridge sets the action in an abstract but clearly contemporary world), nor—at least in theory—with the goal of making the plays more accessible.
But Antony and Cleopatra is particularly tricky, because the characters themselves should be “inaccessible.” Not only are they both emblems of what even in Shakespeare’s day were doomed, ancient civilizations—they are also meant to be, in their passions and power, almost incomprehensibly bigger than life.
Consider just two examples from the text. First, Enobarbus’s famous description of Cleopatra:
For her own person, It beggar’d all description…
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety. Other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies…
Or Cleopatra herself near the end of the play, describing Antony:
His legs bestrid the ocean. His reared arm
Crested the world…
He was as rattling thunder.
Realms and islands were
As plates dropped from his pocket.
Few characters here suggest this kind of depth, though Eleanor Handley (Agrippa) and Luigi Sottile (Pompey) do well with the verse and bring some suavity to the proceedings. Playing Charmian, Cleopatra’s main attendant, Ilia Iosrelys Paulino is striking and committed, literally and metaphorically towering over her Queen.
As for Cleopatra herself—arguably Shakespeare’s greatest female role—Tembe registers as little more than kittenish and brittle. She and Bledsoe’s Antony seem made for each other, and not in a good way.
Like I said, they’re a gorgeous couple. It was my first thought… and my last one, too. In Cleopatra’s great final speech, when Tembe takes center stage, tosses back her head and announces, “I am fire and air,” instead of waiting to learn what would become of her lesser elements, I expected to hear the follow-up voice of an unseen narrator:
‘Fire and Air’: The new fragrance from Ralph Lauren! Available at better department stores everywhere.
Antony and Cleopatra plays in repertory through August 4th. For more information, visit the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival website.