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Antony and Cleopatra — McCarter Theatre

untitled (95)In spite of some judicious editing, and the elision of characters, Emily Mann’s production of Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” proceeds slowly and cumbersomely at McCarter Theatre.

Opulent though the production is, with Cleopatra’s gowns and soldiers’ martial costumes being equally handsome, and burnished gold triangles creating a modern yet rich look for the set, Mann’s staging remains cold, neither the romance between the legendary lovers in Shakespeare’s title nor the heady politics that catapult ancient Rome from a republic to an empire summoning enough steam to foment sustained interest in the show.

This is an “Antony of Cleopatra” of moments. Individual sequences and occasional line readings have power, and each of the principals, played by Esau Pritchett and Nicole Ari Parker, has scenes that demonstrate the fullness they could have given their characters. In general, Pritchett and Parker are outplayed by their castmates, Zainab Jah, Tobias Segal, and Warner Miller, in smaller roles, and the wit, history, and majesty of Shakespeare’s play rarely come through.

Pritchett and Parker tend to be one-note in their approach to their characters. For all of Pritchett’s physical grandeur, he has no shades as Antony. Everything is played brusquely and as a display of power. Even Antony’s lust for Cleopatra comes across as muscular dominance. There’s no warmth in Pritchett. Any fire is consumed in anger. His Antony always looks as if he wants to decimate all of stage, including Cleopatra with one mighty swing of his well-tempered sword.

All of Pritchett’s readings sound alike. His diction gets muddy at times, and his voice, though deep and resonant, has little tonal range.There is no variation. You don’t see the playfulness Shakespeare provides for several scenes with Cleopatra. There’s no levels of expression. You don’t see consternation or a man in battle with himself. The deeper, more textured aspects of the character do not show. Pritchett’s Antony is all raw power. He speaks to everyone gruffly. You don’t hear the man who eulogized Julius Caesar so eloquently or who is given some speeches that require a show of diplomacy in “Antony and Cleopatra,” such as Antony’s first meeting with a livid Octavius or his willingness to marry Octavius’s sister in spite of the great love he bears for Cleopatra. You certainly don’t hear a lover.

Pritchett roars through the play without giving much thought to individual lines or attitudes. He gives Antony’s words no music, no grace notes at all. Every line is delivered in the same timbre, at the same pace, and with the same paucity of discernable emotion.

If you want an Antony who can bestride the Western world, Pritchett’s Antony, with its physicality, qualifies. If you want an Antony whose nature is so great and encompassing that his commitment to being a soldier, a statesman, a politician, a husband, and a lover are all in uneasy conflict, Pritchett’s Antony does not even pretend to such variety or subtlety.

The one difference is in the late scene in which Antony believes Cleopatra has betrayed him, that she has secured her own safety and position as Queen of Egypt by sacrificing Antony and his army and allying with Octavius. In this one instance, we see passion, a panoply of emotions and thoughts, and a man who is vulnerable enough to admit and display his pain before steeling, as Antony does, and speaking with vengeful resolve.

You wonder where all of this versatility was the during the other parts of Pritchett’s performance. We know from last year’s “Fences” that the actor has resources and can show moods and different aspects of a character. Why is Pritchett so stolid before hinting at the performance he could have given and may grow into as “Antony and Cleopatra” runs?

Yes, Pritchett’s size and physique give him a sexy cast, but he never seems romantic. He doesn’t show the sense of fun Parker’s Cleopatra would seem to excite. He seems as one who would be rough and efficient in lovemaking, rather than tender and sensuous.

Nicole Ari Parker’s performance is the opposite of Pritchett’s. It’s everywhere, occasionally focused in one place but  more often a display of someone suggesting Cleopatra instead of being her.

Parker’s is the more interesting of the two lead turns. She has a sure sense of Cleopatra’s caprice and can be mercurial in mood and behavior.

Unlike Pritchett, she finds her character’s playfulness. Parker’s problem is in not knowing when to let it go.

There are scenes in which she’s delightfully entertaining, and lines that she aces, for instance her wonder at hearing of the death of Antony’s first wife, and asking, almost comically, “Can Fulvia die?” in a way that denotes a fascination in so easy a solution to a matter that’s been troubling her, Antony being married.

Teasing about Fulvia and chiding Antony for his wandering romantic allegiance is Cleopatra’s main sport for many scenes. Later she will be jealous of Antony’s need to go to battle to defend the portion of kingdom he’s claimed for him and Cleopatra as his purview in Rome’s triumvirate. Shakespeare gives Cleopatra pointed lines. He creates her as a witty flirt who is quick with a taunt but wants assurance in return because she truly adores Antony, faults and all. Parker catches some of Cleopatra’s wily ways. She gives you more to watch and enjoy than Pritchett does. But, like Pritchett, she doesn’t capture or convey the depth and soul of her characters. She doesn’t seem secure in her performance. Parker is entertaining when she acts Cleopatra’s whimsical side, but she doesn’t show the love and need underneath the queen’s talent to challenge anything Antony says or to devise games to secure Antony’s attention and assure his ongoing presence in Egypt.

Parker gives you someone to watch, and you are happy to see her Cleopatra return to the stage, but something critical is missing to make her portrayal complete, and that is a sense of the seriousness behind Cleopatra’s light airs and an idea of the wisdom that makes Cleopatra a worthy monarch and a fit partner for Antony and for Julius Caesar before him.

We need to see the Cleopatra that Antony’s lieutenant, Enobarbus, describes in the famous speech in which Shakespeare says age cannot wither her nor custom stale her infinite variety. Parker shows a lot of variety, but she scatters Cleopatra’s many traits that must be compacted into one unified  being and one consistent portrayal.

Parker is able to keep things lively in scenes when Cleopatra is surrounded by her court. She seems to enjoy scenes involving augury or soothsaying. She is also moving as the wizened Cleopatra, sobered by the reality of war and by Antony’s suicide.

“Antony and Cleopatra” is a difficult play to mount under any circumstances. Although it comes late in Shakespeare’s canon, it is one of the less disciplined of his scripts, moving quickly from domestic scenes in Egypt to councils or war. The dialogue and poetry are there to give “Antony and Cleopatra” the grandeur of other Shakespearean pieces, but more than most of the Bard’s plays, it depends on strong, engaging, complex characterizations to give it luster and make it truly engrossing.

Both Marc Antony and Queen Cleopatra have a lot they can convey. Shakespeare makes them amazingly human. He endows them with everything from the ability to lead to the talent for having unburdening fun. For all of the Bard’s care, it’s rare that you see the partnership between the two displayed on stage. It’s also rare that all the many facets in Shakespeare’s text, e.g. his grasp of the political situation in Rome, including Antony’s universally spoken of neglect of duty, show up on stage. Even the favorite Cleopatra of my memory, Maggie Smith, could not capture the entire character, and most productions falter on the weight of scenes dealing with Rome’s administration. They don’t seem to find a way to make the theme of preserving a democracy engaging.

This is what makes “Antony and Cleopatra” a challenge. Also working on a director’s nerve is how to animate some of the drier scenes in which battles are being discussed. Emily Mann has eliminated as many of these as she could, in good conscience, get away with, but they exist to interrupt the more vigorous action that takes place in Egypt and in Antony’s mind.

Phyllida Lloyd, directing “Julius Caesar” last season, showed how tactical scenes can be made brilliantly immediate. Ironically, some of the more engaging scenes in Mann’s “Antony and Cleopatra” come when Tobias Segal takes the stage as Octavius.

Using a vastly different acting style from Pritchett, Parker, or anyone else on the McCarter stage, Segal’s clipped, no-nonsense readings and proud egotistical bearing as Octavius make you listen to him and show you, though Segal is slight in build, especially in comparison with Pritchett’s Antony, how much power Octavius wields and how much in command he is of his forces and his fate.

Segal leavens the McCarter production. His bearing is almost comic, but you know you dare not cross this character, especially to laugh at him, without looking to incur severe penalty.

I mentioned Tobias Segal has a markedly different acting style from anyone else on stage. Another of the issues in Mann’s production is the mélange of techniques the cast employs within this staging.

Pritchett is stentorian and delivers every line with the same phrasing and modulation. Parker is more airy in her approach and, at times, finds the music in Cleopatra’s language and the sting in her taunts.

Segal is an Octavius who suffers no fool gladly and will have his imperious say in no uncertain terms. He fills the McCarter stage with authority while conveying that Octavius has none of Cleopatra or Enobarbus’s humor and looks upon love as a political alliance.

As Enobarbus, Michael Siberry is looser than any other character on stage. There is little military or statesmanlike in his bearing. Enobarbus is the most informative character in “Antony and Cleopatra.” It is he that tells us about the marvelous traits of both leaders, and he seems to get a definite kick in spreading the gossip of the Roman and Egyptian courts. Siberry is clear in his recitations, but he gives Enobarbus an eccentric cast, his hair looking a little out of place, his lines being familiarly conversational more than they are presented to accentuate their poetry. You know Siberry registers more as a chatty figure than a bosom friend to Antony when you feel no recoil of revulsion when Enobarbus deserts Antony and defects to Octavius’s camp.

Siberry is a welcome presence, but a perplexing one.

Two actors, in addition to Segal, that seem to have their characters in full and thorough hand are Zainab Jah, due to play Hamlet at Philadelphia’s Wilma Theatre this spring, and Warner Miller in a variety of roles. Keith Eric Chappelle is also successful in differentiating the myriad of assignments Mann has given him.

What makes Jah stand out is the humanity she gives her role, Charmian, a handmaiden to Cleopatra, while physically and vocally portraying every aspect of her character. Charmian has the demeanor of a servant but knows she also has license to speak freely and candidly. She is Cleopatra’s confidante and the leader of the queen’s household. Jah always knows the right note to hit and the right attitude to convey. She can engender humor or generate concern for her mistress and her court.

Chappelle is particularly impressive as a soothsayer and as a soldier roundly abused by Cleopatra and by Octavius. Miller endows his characters with dignity.

Everett Quinton gives funny turn as Cleopatra’s eunuch, Mardian.  Thom Sesma is strong in the various roles he is assigned, as Lepidus and Proculeis in particular. Mairin Lee is a wonderful as a companion and partner to Jah in Cleopatra’s court. She registers less strongly as a bland, perfunctory Octavia. Phillippe Bowgen seemed to inherit all the roles Mann cut in addition to a more pointed role as the go-between Agrippa. He comported himself well in all his guises and was affecting as soldier who Antony has whipped for insolence.

Daniel Ostling’s set was as evocative as it was attractive. No site was specific, but Ostling defined courts and other settings by using large, gold triangles to form different structures. He was well abetted by lighting designer Edward Pierce who provided shades and colors that indicated the tenor of a scene. Paul Tazewell’s costumes were fine throughout, and I enjoyed the broad palette he chose for Cleopatra. Ostling also did a great job in fashioning Cleopatra’s stylish throne.

Mark Bennett’s music, percussive, suggestive, and viscerally bold, stands out for his power and its variety of sound. His score was played with brio by Mark Katsaounis.

Because Mann’s approach to “Antony and Cleopatra” is so direct, the play and its situations will be clear throughout, but the magic you usually expect from McCarter and, in particular, from a show helmed by Emily Mann are strangely absent.

“Antony and Cleopatra” runs through Sunday, October 12, at the Berlind Theatre of McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, in Princeton, N.J. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday (except for Oct. 12), 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. No performance is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 23 Tickets range from $92.50 to $25 and can be obtained by calling 609-258-2787 or by visiting www.mccarter.org.

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