Reviewed by Greg Fiebig, PhD
I just saw “Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra: UNDONE,” adapted by Patricia Henritze and Shawna Tucker, and you should too. The Skyline StageWorks’ production, directed by John Arthur Lewis, is currently playing at the Side Project Theatre on west Jarvis on the north side of Chicago. Knowing Shakespeare’s plays were originally intended to traffic the stage for a couple of hours, I was skeptical of a script cut to the quick with a run time of an hour fifteen minutes. Like the author himself wrote, however, “brevity is the soul of wit.” Quickened by the use of a narrator and a truncated cast of four (Antony, Cleopatra, Octavius Caesar, and Player), this version of Antony and Cleopatra does not disappoint. Much of the extraneous matter related to wars and rumors of wars was abandoned or reimagined on a much smaller scale, allowing the arc of the story to focus on the interpersonal relationships between Antony and Cleopatra, Caesar and Antony, and Cleopatra and Caesar. The resulting story was a crisp, unencumbered examination of power and passion.
The cast of veteran actors was physically strong and vocally precise serving the story and the audience well. Despite their well-honed craft, the actors at times seemed worlds apart. Caesar, played by Drew Mierzejewski, and Antony, played by British actor James Sparling, seemed part of Ancient Rome. Cleopatra, played by Shawna Tucker, and Player, played by Bill Gordon, on the other hand, seemed far more modern. The contrast of worlds, ancient and modern, was unsatisfying. The strongest scenes featured the conflicting wills of Antony and Caesar vying for power and influence. Their very first encounter, in particular, was effectively staged and played. The two paced and counter-paced like caged lions, the resulting tension was palpable.
At first, I was disquieted by the contrast of dialects. The choice to use Sparling’s exquisite British dialect seemed out of place for Rome. It did, however, help to distinguish his character’s background from that of Cleopatra. But when Caesar, like Cleopatra and the Player, spoke with an American dialect, I felt displaced. After all, are not Marc Antony and Octavius Caesar fellow countrymen?
The playing space of the Side Project Theatre is quite intimate. The space is equally divided by an audience of twenty-four situated at one end of the narrow rectangle and the stage set at the other. Again, while the acting was noteworthy, at times the volume and action felt too large for such an intimate space. In particular, the downstage shouting match between Cleopatra and Antony lacked the nuance such an intimate playing space affords.
The staging of Cleopatra’s suicide via asp bite was engrossing. I wondered about the significance of Cleopatra removing her necklace, but was quickly captivated as she wrapped it tightly around her finger. Her necklace wrapped finger glistened in the footlight representing the head of the asp and then in puppet like fashion, she convincingly drew the snake to her breast and took in its poison. The footlight projected her interplay with the asp onto the rear wall of the space and created a larger than life silhouette of the pivotal scene. Kudos to the director and lighting designer for this subtle and yet spectacular theatrical moment.
Only once did the sound design (Matt Kania and Christian Gero) overpower the action and dialogue onstage and, then, it was merely a matter of volume. The soundtrack as a whole was well conceived. And at those significant moments of the show (i.e., Antony’s death), the soundtrack giving way to profound silence was stunningly effective. Antony’s death could have been even more significant had the soundtrack ended abruptly and simultaneously as Antony drew his final breath.
A few of the stylized staging choices drew me out of the performance. For example, the sea battle represented by miniature boats was a clever choice to advance the plot, but seemed to minimize the significance of the battle. Likewise, the choice of miniature green army soldiers effectively advanced the story, but left me unsatisfied, as if the text alone was incapable of relating the story. One moment that captivated and enthralled, apart from the aforementioned asp, was the inspired Texas hold ’em wager in which Caesar outwitted, outfoxed, or at least covertly gained an upper hand over Antony. Unlike the model ships and toy soldiers, the cards and chips represented the stakes far more effectively.
Costumes (Nathan Rohrer), much like they would have in Shakespeare’s day, had an eclectic feel. For example, Caesar wore contemporary jeans and a long sleeved army undershirt. He was outfitted for battle with the adornment of a leather-like doublet. With the exception of Cleopatra’s deep maroon gown, the monotone palette of the show grounded and served the story well. Cleopatra’s gown contrasted and counterbalanced the stark, strong male characters and served to foreshadow the spilling of blood in all Shakespearean tragedies.
The lighting design (Elizabeth Sutherland) was suggestive and subtle for the most part. The color palette and plot helped focus the story. The only criticism of the lighting would be the stark, nearly naked, less subtle backlighting from upstage right. That pair of lights pierced through the stage and left at least part of the audience feeling a bit like deer in the headlights.
This progressive look at Antony and Cleopatra is a must see for any avid theatregoer, especially those Shakespeare aficionados who enjoy a fresh look at a timeless classic. Make time to find your way to the Side Project Theatre, 1429 W. Jarvis, Chicago, IL, between now and October 5, 2014. For specific information, contact Shawna Tucker at ShawnaTucker23@gmail.com.