Every production at the Folger is an exercise in innovation. The experimental magic alone is a reason to attend plays there, and frequently. The Folger’s latest, beautiful experiment, “Antony and Cleopatra,” will play at the Folger Theatre through November 19.
This is the second time that the Folger stages a play in the round in recent history–the first one was for the lean and haunting Richard III. In “Antony and Cleopatra,” we are invited to the boudoir of Queen Cleopatra (Shirine Babb), where she shines like a jewel on a pedestal, glittering in costumes by Mariah Hale and surrounded by warm light. The lighting, designed by Andrew Griffin, echoes the language and cadence well: Rome is echoic, cold, austere, full of shadows. Alexandria, by contrast, is warm and inviting, and at the center lives a goddess, highlighted by an inverted pyramid: the Chalice to Mark Antony’s blade. (Curious about how they transformed the theater for a performance in the round? Check out this great timelapse video.)
Except that Mark Antony, as played by Cody Nickell, is portrayed as a kept man despite his bad-boy bravado and penchant for hedonism. Life is good with Cleopatra: Why return to where things are cold and duty-bound? His conscience is stirred in Shakespearean fashion by a death: His wife, Fulvia, has died. The other ghost forcing Antony to leave his nest of love is Pompey, whose threats to the Roman Empire need to be addressed urgently.
Throughout the play, it is the ancillary characters who shine best. They are the ones who convey the emotional and physical load of having to deal with these conceited, larger-than-life personalities up close. And it is through their reactions that we are hit by the gravity of a leader besotted with a woman who is most in love with herself –and vice versa.
The frustration in Nigel Gore’s Enobarbus is, quite literally, all of us: We know how this one ends, yet here we are. Anthony Michael Martinez’s soothsayer is compelling: When he tells Cleopatra’s ladies their fates –to flirtatious Charmian (Simoné Elizabeth Bart) and to slightly-dim Iras (Nicole King, who is also lovely as Octavia), we wish we could all shout, “GET OUT WHILE YOU CAN.”
The feeling of powerlessness, of doom in knowing that this is not going to end well, is distilled in the well-staged battle at sea. When Mark Antony turns his ships to follow Cleopatra’s and we are nearly blinded in flashes of fire –with another nod to Andrew Griffin– we know we are caught in a story as large and as convoluted as a Taylor-Burton romance, or even a Kylie-Tyga romance (for the millennials).
As the play progresses, our V.I.P. status wears thin. Antony and Cleopatra’s tantrums and insecurities are set under such a magnifying glass and pushed up so close in our intimate theater experience, that I found myself almost rooting for the sword and the asp. Antony’s death, in particular, reveals him as a cowardly man– one whose mind is too filled up with emotion to think things through to their last consequence. When his faithful servant, Eros (Anthony Michael Martinez, excellent again), accidentally stabs himself in his fear to hurt his master, Antony is ravaged by a rapid cycling of grief, guilt and self-loathing. It is a horrible way to realize you are human, and that your actions hurt others.
Go experience this performace for yourself:
WHAT: “Antony and Cleopatra” through November 19
WHERE: At the Folger Shakespeare Theater, 201 East Capitol Street
WHEN: This weekend, through November 19. Click here for tickets.
If you really need more to entice you, please enjoy “‘Antony and Cleopatra’ in 30 Seconds” and The Folger Library’s “Discussing Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra”