Thursday, July 29, 2010

A to Z

Congrats to the folks at the Firehouse who have sold out the rest of the run of their summer production of “Rent.” I’m glad I got to see it when I did or else I’d be crying in my beer now.

When I first starting writing reviews I invested in a handy little reference book called “Shakespeare A to Z” that has information on all aspects of Shakespeare, historical background, biographical context and fairly detailed analyses of his plays. After attending “Antony and Cleopatra” on Sunday, I pulled it off the shelf and saw that it calls the tragedy “one of Shakespeare’s most complex and rewarding plays.” While I have found the book to be very useful, I only half agree with this assertion.

Based on the Richmond Shakespeare production of “A&C,” which is the only production of the play that I’ve seen, the work is complex but also often crosses the line over into downright confusing. Without the summary in the playbill, there would be no way to follow some aspects of the action. As just one example, after intermission two relatively major characters (Pompey and Lepidus) essentially disappear. I believe there is some reference to their deaths but, still, I found their absence pretty jarring (particularly given Nolan Carey’s fine work as Pompey). The shifts in time and place throughout the play – not to mention the attitudes and affections between the characters – are often surprisingly abrupt.

As far as rewarding, I agree to the extent that, when you are faced with a challenge and you overcome it, it feels rewarding when you are done. But not everyone wants to face a challenge when they go out for a night of theater. I appreciate the challenge that this play represents – the complicated counterpoints between public and private, West and East, sexual and political, comedy and tragedy, love and power. But I have to agree with a couple of my critical colleagues when they’ve pointed out ways that the production falls short of making the process a thorough delight. But I also disagree with some of the points made, both positive and negative.

Mr. Griset of Style pointed out that the play presents pretty unique staging demands – numerous locales in different countries, not to mention a naval battle and some final dramatic action at Cleopatra’s monument. Tucking the monument back into a corner of the stage removed from the audience did seem an odd choice. It seemed to throw off the dynamics of the whole scene.

In some ways, this dovetails with Ms. Haubenstock’s mention of the off-kilter goofiness of some of the scenes. In general, I believe director Bob Jones played up the comic elements of Cleopatra’s character. This was most jarring to me in the run up to her death and the introduction of the “rural fellow.” I understand that there might be elements of comedy in this scene but it’s undeniably tragic as well. In my mind, comedy in this context should be pretty dark not necessarily slapstick.

I also have to agree with Ms. H when she points out the costuming. There were some nice elements – Octavian’s striking red gown was one and the Roman robes flowed grandly. But the soldiers’ outfits in particular were either ill-fitting (they all seemed too small to me) or just ill-considered. The Cairns/Hoskins duo has been able to evoke grandeur in the past but fell short here. Nice work on the lights, though a lighting designer wasn’t listed in the program.

Unlike Mr. G or Ms. H, I had issues with Zach Brown’s Enobarbus. While his smoldering stare was impressive, I didn’t believe him as an expert soldier and right-hand man. He did fine work with his regretful laments near the play’s end, though.

I also thought David Bridgewater and Shirley Kagan had a good amount of sexual zing between them. However, I go back to feeling like Kagan ended up being undercut by the emphasis on comedy in her scenes. There is some ironyin this: an actress playing one of her servants, Sarah Jamillah Johnson, proved that comedy could be sexy in her portrayal of Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing” earlier in the RichShake’s season (both she and fellow handmaiden Bonnie Morrison are delightful). Kagan has a bigger challenge here – she has to be sexy, funny, dynamic, and domineering. It’s a role that I don’t think many actresses could really conquer and she doesn’t seem to get much help in the effort from her director.

What is pretty undeniable is the strength of Bridgewater’s portrayal of Antony, which is certainly to be expected given his long and impressive body of previous work. He brings formidable physicality to his performance and has a strong growling voice that lends energy to his later scenes. Still, it is the chill in his delivery of simple lines like “I have thee” when he embraces Caesar or the naked emotion of “He makes me angry” that is the most bracing.

In the end, I was glad to have seen “A&C” though it may not represent RichShakes’ best work. Even when their shows aren’t stellar, they always have at least a few elements that I find myself remembering with appreciation later on.

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