Antony and Cleopatra is a play which, probably due to its vivid imagery and dark story, has inspired many other forms of art. Paintings, poems, operas, songs, and even movies (1972 by Charlton Heston). Shakespeare himself got the idea from a folk story, although it is he who made it famous. Having such a high bar set, due to the grandeur of past performances, this play is extremely difficult to attempt. In this small, oddly shaped rectangular theater in Spanish Harlem, someone in the theater decided he was going to take it on. And take it on he/she did. A blank stage with three swivel chairs, a bed, and a table serving as the the set and two snakes, swords and glasses the props, this company became a troop of soldiers, toiling through the sands of Egypt and the cities of Rome.
Antony is a character who can be interpreted many different ways. He stands by Caesar in Julius Caesar, but is this really the right thing to do? He leaves duty for love and went back to Egypt in Antony and Cleopatra, but is this the right priority? He fought against his friends to protect his love, but is this really being loyal? All these question marks swirl around him, and each much be answered by the director be for the show, because he cannot, under any circumstances, seem unsure. Even if he is clearly wrong, his character demands an air of complete confidence. Michael Early spoke loud and sternly, always leaving no room for doubt. His voice carried throughout the entire house, filling every corner. Even when he lay down on his death bed his voice carried to each ear in the audience, without any strain. However, was too slumped to be kingly. He was almost never standing upright, and when he did it was un-convicingly. To be a real general or leader, one must look the part.
No play is complete without its heroine, and Cleopatra (Debra Ann Byrd) completed this one. An accomplished actress (elected into 2011’s Who’s Who, and co-founder of the company) she, perpetuated perfectly the firey Egyptian. When told Antony was well she floated, as if on a cloud. When told he was. He roared, nearly killing the messenger with sheer terror. Her fire was only quenched when her love died, whereupon with a low moan she sunk to the ground, clutching the asp to her chest, follows suit.
Octavius Caesar (David Heron) was also quite powerful. He strutted around like a king, and his neck veins popped when his authority was questioned He never cared about others advice and showed off how his features whenever he could. He shared a little implied incest with his sister, which was an interesting tweak. He was one of three experienced stage actors, who were unmistakable because their voices carried throughout the theater without the strain of TV stars. The variance between the two on the cast list was monumental.
Though the play is tough, the crew was tougher. They persevered through scenes and a few blown lines. Each actor and actress gave their all in every scene, even if they had few or no lines. The performances were greeted with a loud round of applause from the audience, and they received it with a lot of class. Although there may have been more energy than expertise, each player took his/her own bow with as much recognition as the stars, and the collective focus was not relinquished until the last line. This kind of commitment is hard to find, and it often exceeds all expectations when discovered. Antony and Cleopatra is under-rated because it is so hard to find a good production, and seeing this one did a little to help change my view. And hey, who doesn’t love a little Roman tragedy now and then?
(photos to follow)