Review: Hollywood Meets Fascist Italy in Kingsmen’s Antony and Cleopatra

Kingsmen - Antony and Cleopatra

Shad Willingham and Cynthia Beckert as Antony and Cleopatra with Dekyi Ronge (Charmian)and Natasha Buran (Iras)

It’s all about the love story in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and this one has at its core the epic romance of the ages – Mark Antony and the notorious Queen of the Nile – two dramatic individuals consumed with passion of whom much has been written. It’s a perfect choice for Kingsmen Shakespeare Company’s final offering of the 2014 summer season and delivers another lovely night of Shakespeare under the stars just a short drive up the 101 to Thousand Oaks.

Kingsmen’s production is set in the 1930s where two distinct worlds emerge: Cleopatra’s Egypt, done up in the image of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and Mark Antony’s Rome, seen here as Mussolini’s fascist Italy. They are as different as night and day in director John Slade’s artful vision and his design team has done a beautiful job of making each one ring with authenticity on the company’s outdoor festival stage. 

Erik D. Diaz’s bi-level set doubles as both Egypt and Italy with Leigh Allen’s lighting and Noelle Raffy’s costumes signifying the location of each scene. For Cleopatra’s (Cynthia Beckert) court, it is warm lighting and the rich jewel tones of the desert glamourized to fit a Queen that highlight the decadent allure of hot nights and fragrant breezes.

Raffy styles Beckert like a Hollywood starlet in body-hugging gowns set with crystal accents that are revealing enough to turn any man’s head. “I was a morsel for a monarch,” laments the aging queen of her younger days but this Cleopatra has lost none of her shine. Beckert conquers the stage like a country unto itself. She is the epitome of volatility, often melodramatic, always changeable; a woman whose histrionics are on display for all to see. At times reminiscent of Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Davis, and even Vivien Leigh, Beckert delivers a dynamic performance, her best I’ve seen to date.

For Antony (Shad Willingham), cool gray stone and translucent blues characterize the severe, colorless political environment of Rome and again Raffy’s uniforms and period details create a wonderful shift in tone. Willingham cuts a dashing figure in his field uniform and jackboots, and in the scenes with his fellow soldiers he is entirely believable. What I missed was the sizzle between he and Beckert. There was plenty of anger and soldierly posturing but his passion got lost in the pompous underpinnings of his character and didn’t translate to the audience. There was more intensity in the single kiss he shared with his new wife Octavia, a marriage of obligation than in his scenes with Cleopatra, but that isn’t the story of this play. This is the tale of two larger than life personalities whose love story bridges worlds, flashes brilliantly, and then tragically ends.

During the pre-show, composer Chris Hogue was asked to talk about the original music he had written for the play. This was his opportunity to produce an epic Hollywood score and it is every bit as lush and lovely as the great film scores of the early days of the Golden Age.

I am normally a fan of incorporating music into a production but in this instance the lengthy pre-recorded overture and 2nd Act entr’acte that played while lights remained up on a bare stage seemed out of place. Hogue uses quite a bit of underscoring throughout the show but levels were off at the performance I attended and it was often louder than the actors, which made it a distraction rather than an enhancement to the scene. Underscoring also stops the energy of the quick cut scenes in the latter half of the play so the actors have to work twice as hard to keep the momentum going. Where it seemed to integrate most effectively was as scene change music, especially in the early part of the play.

Supporting cast standouts include Jerry Lloyd as an imposing Agrippa, an ego-driven Justin Michael Terry whose Octavius is prone to the temper tantrums of a child, and Jason Rennie in a smart, honest performance as Antony’s friend turned traitor, Enobarbus. Fight choreography by Brett Elliott is well-executed and drives home the erratic emotional turns that take place. Jeff Wallach’s choreography brings buoyant life to the Hollywood veneer.

Antony and Cleopatra runs for one more weekend on the campus of California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks. Glamorous, bold, and richly revived…this one is more than ready for its close-up.

Ellen Dostal
Shakespeare in LA

Kingsmen - Antony and Cleopatra

Center: Marc Silver (Lepidus) and Justin Michael Terry (Octavius)

ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA
Through August 3, 2014
Kingsmen Shakespeare Company at
California Lutheran University
60 West Olsen Road #1800, Thousand Oaks, CA 91360
General admission is $20 for adults and free for those under 18. Individual tickets are available at the door only. Lawn boxes are $75 to $110. For lawn box reservations, call (805) 493-3014 or visit www.kingsmenshakespeare.org.

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