For 28 years, The Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival has operated on the theory that its namesake playwright needed some assistance to entertain a contemporary audience.
So, in addition to drastic editing of each script, the company frequently relocates the action to a different time and/or place. In the case of PBSF’s current show, Antony and Cleopatra, it also adds a 20th-century framing device – something about the discovery of an ancient chest which, when opened, releases “the curse of Cleopatra.” Now why didn’t old Will think of that?
In fact, Antony and Cleopatra is one of Shakespeare’s simpler plays, a history-based tragedy that concerns the power of love and the love of power. And while the play is rarely produced, most theatergoers probably know the key elements of the plot from the infamous Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor movie epic.
As we see – now in flashback – Marc Antony has become one of the three rulers of Rome, but he has been spending most of his time in Egypt with its alluring queen, Cleopatra. Upon learning that his wife Fulvia has died, he embarks on a marriage of convenience with Octavia, the sister of another of the rulers of Rome. But Antony’s new marriage does nothing to dampen his ardor for Cleo.
The play, particularly as pared down by director Trent Stephens, focuses chiefly on the two title characters. The performance demands on them are extreme, which may help to explain why Antony and Cleopatra is produced so infrequently. In any event, Stephen Hedger and Kelly Lee Hussey give the roles a good try, but they rarely rise to the tragic heights required.
Antony is an especially complex character, torn between his public duties and his private yearnings. Such schizophrenic obligations inevitably come in conflict as he dissolves into madness and opts for a warrior’s suicide. Instead of the requisite nuances, Hedger conveys his turmoil mainly by increasing the volume of his vocal delivery.
Hussey is a more convincing Cleopatra as she makes an alluring entrance, carried aloft on a chaise. Visually, one can see why Antony is captivated by her, but when she speaks the spell is broken. Her cadences are too contemporary and less then regal.
If you know anything about Cleo’s death, you probably know that she was done in by the bite of a poisonous asp. Be forewarned if you happen to have fear of snakes that the Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival did not settle for a rubber reptile. So give them points for authenticity, though you are unlikely to be listening to any of the dialogue when the snake is onstage.
Uncharacteristically, some of the supporting players are more adept at slinging the Elizabethan prose than the principals are. Among the verbally dexterous are Darryl Willis and Zachary Myers as a couple of the court attendants, Enobarbus and Lepidus. Also prominent in the ensemble are three of Cleopatra’s minions – Charmian (Sara Grant), Iris (Vickie Anderson) and Meridon (Carlos Rivera Marin) – who handle the frequent undulating, hip-popping uncredited choreography. The dance moves are hardly period authentic, but that did not seem to bother the audience a bit.
There is much more to Antony and Cleopatra than Palm Beach Shakespeare delivers, but perhaps the shorthand version being presented will encourage theatergoers to investigate the complete play. Or at least to check out the movie.
ANTONY and CLEOPATRA, Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival, Seabreeze Amphitheater, Carlin Park, A1A and Indiantown Road, Jupiter. Shows at 8 p.m., Thursday through Sunday, July 22. Free admission, $5 suggested donation. Call 561-966-7099 or visit pbshakespeare.org.