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Theater Review: ‘Antony & Cleopatra’ conflicted loyalties at PSF

The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival production of William Shakespeare’s “Antony & Cleopatra,” through Aug. 4, Main Stage, Labuda Center for the Arts, DeSales University, Center Valley, is big, sprawling and grand.

The drama, believed to have been first performed in 1607 possibly at the Globe Theatre, by Shakespeare’s troupe, the King’s Men, is a hybrid in the Shakespeare canon of a history play, a tragedy and a problem play.

One thing “Antony & Cleopatra” is not: It is not an easy play. It’s a challenge for director, actors and artistic staff, as well as the theater-goer, buffed in Shakespeare as he or she may or may not be.

This time around, “Antony & Cleopatra,” presented 10 years ago at PSF, takes on an ominous tone in the symbolic stage panels, triangular set piece and modern furniture by Scenic Designer Roman Tatarowicz, stark washes of gray, blue, purple and gold by Lighting Designer Eric T. Haugen, portentous percussion and electronic effects by Sound Designer William Neal, military attire with influences of British, Nazi and Sandinista and lavish Egyptian stylized gowns by Costume Designer Sarah Cubbage, that reference not only historic events circa 36 BC, but history through the centuries up until contemporary times and, perhaps, the future.

PSF “Antony & Cleopatra” Director Eleanor Holdridge emphasizes the dynamics in the large some 17-member cast as a triangle of power politics between Marc Anthony (Neal Bledsoe), Cleopatra (Nondumiso Tembe) and Octavius Caesar (Justin Mark). The action shifts between Rome, Egypt and a battle at sea.

Not that I am Shakespeare scholar, nor do I play one on TV, but “Antony & Cleopatra” is problematic as a work of theater. There are few big moments. The plot moves along steadily with few quotable speeches.

Much of the action is described, rather than seen. Scenes are episodic, almost of commercial TV-length. The cast seems to be rushing on or off the stage, with only a few key scenes to savor between the main characters.

The scale of the PSF production is such that it serves to mask an inherent lack in the play. Perhaps the play, for whatever reason, was more relevant in Shakespeare’s time. In modern times, “Antony & Cleopatra” comes off as a warhorse, dusted off, spruced up, but lacking in an understanding of loss, betrayal or redemption. The characters, as written, as with the plot, are not clearly drawn.

An attempt to present the proceedings as western versus eastern, or western white versus African black, works to a certain extent. In addition to Cleopatra (Nondumiso Tembe), those playing the Egypt characters are black: Charmian (Ilia Isorelys Paulino), Iras (Alyssa Ramsey), Alexas (Brandon Edward Burton) and Mardian (Taylor Congdon).

Tembe as Cleopatra especially makes interesting choices, raising her frame to its fullest extent, an extended arm and upstretched hand for emphasis, with the brisk, balletic movements of a dancer. She’s more vulnerable than impervious in her interpretation.

Bledsoe is a tall, stoic presence, and yet represents well the ambiguity of his character, divided between allegiance to the Roman triumvirate and his love for Cleopatra. Bledsoe and Tembe each convey the conflicted loyalties of their respective characters.

Also memorable are Matthew Floyd Miller (Eros), providing a modicum of comic relief; Liam Craig (Domitius Enobarbus), strong in audience direct-address speeches; Eleanor Handley (Agrippa), Luigi Sottile (Thidias) and Shpend Xani (Lepidus).

“Antony & Cleopatra” is a Tabula rasa on which each generation, from Shakespeare’s to the present, projects their feelings, interpretations and conclusions. In the summer of 2019, the view is in the eye of the theater-goer.

Tickets: Labuda Center for the Performing Arts lobby box office, DeSales University, 2755 Station Avenue, Center Valley; pashakespeare.org/psf_tickets.php; 610-282-WILL (9455)

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO BY LEE A. BUTZPennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, “Antony & Cleopatra,” through Aug. 4, Main Stage, Labuda Center for the Arts, DeSales University, Center Valley.