An Audience Experiment – Antony and Cleopatra at A Noise Within

Susan Angelo (Cleopatra) & Geoff Elliott (Antony). Photos: Craig Schwartz

I have been thinking about the production of Antony and Cleopatra I attended at A Noise Within recently. It is one of Shakespeare’s works I had not seen before as few companies take on this particular play with its swift changes of location, numerous battle scenes, and larger than life central figures. I was looking forward to seeing how it would transfer from the page to the stage, especially the wonderful new stage at A Noise Within. It seemed a good fit for a story with such a huge scope. But in the days leading up to seeing Antony and Cleopatra, I had another thought. 

I’ve often heard people say, “oh, I don’t understand Shakespeare so I could never go see it,” and that has puzzled me. So I started wondering…what if I approached this play as a “non-Shakespeare” person. What if I didn’t study it ahead of time to better gauge its nuances and make sure I could follow the story, but instead treated it as if I was a regular audience member who may not have the time, nor the inclination, to do any preliminary research? The idea appealed to me so that became the plan. I didn’t read the play. I didn’t read any articles. I didn’t watch any of the films. I basically went to the theatre cold. This would be an experiment in determining how easy it was to follow a Shakespeare play with which I was completely unfamiliar.

I limited myself to simply reading the synopsis and accompanying character map listed in the program that begins with, “If Romeo and Juliet is a play of young love, Antony and Cleopatra is a play of mature passion. It addresses a series of oppositions – male/female, desire/duty, love/war, East/West and most powerfully, Egypt and Rome. The action moves freely across the whole of the Mediterranean world…1” The whole of the Mediterranean world! Now that’s quite a set-up, entirely accurate, and daunting I’m sure, when discussions of how to present the play were held by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott with their production team.

The rest of the synopsis was a concise single page that recapped the story in a way that really was easy to understand and clearly designed to help an audience member feel less intimidated. Best of all, it worked. The program notes provided enough information to be informative without being overwhelming and laid the basis of familiarity so I could recognize characters when they appeared onstage. Names I was previously unfamiliar with now became a puzzle that made sense like Lepidus, Enobarbus, Pompey, and Octavius Caesar. We’ve all heard of Julius, right…but Octavius? Well, I learned he was Julius’ great nephew and heir, and more importantly, he was a man whose role would factor significantly in the downfall of our hero, Mark Antony.

My attention then went to the stage. I marveled at Tom Buderwitz’s impressive set, an open metal-worked scaffolding design with a second level that extended high above the ground. Its militaristic versatility heightened the visual excitement with its three staggered platforms and massive columns, allowing it to become the vantage point of every battle, home and abroad and even the high seas, as it spanned the cavernous stage.

Susan Angelo, Jill Hill, and Diana Gonzalez-Morett

The main floor featured an elegant marble pool of water and an intricately designed palace floor that signified we were now in Cleopatra’s decadent Egypt. Rich interior furnishings – a plush divan, pillows, and jeweled accessories (by props master Renee Thompson Cash) would emerge for these scenes with the Queen and her companions, clothed by costume designer Angela Balogh Calin, in brilliant, diaphanous silks of orange, teal and magenta. The effect was breathtaking in contrast to the masculine reds and golds of the soldiers’ uniforms and billowing white robes of the Romans in chambers.

But the real test was to see if the nearly three-hour production would keep me engaged. For that to happen the title roles would be critical, as it is Antony and Cleopatra’s insurmountable passion that in many ways drives the play forward. When we meet him, Antony has all but given up his role as conquering hero in favor of the indulgent pleasures of Cleopatra’s court. Given a choice it is clear he would stay there forever, but duty persistently calls, stirring him back to Rome. The fast-paced action moves back and forth from talk of war to several battles to domestic scenes in Egypt and Rome. I followed every one.

L-R: Nick Broderick, Christopher Karbo, Geoff Elliott, Philip Rodriguez, and Nathan Turner

And, I was completely won over by Geoff Elliot’s fading hero Mark Antony. I could see in him a man caught between duty and obligation to his country and his all-consuming passion for a woman. It makes sense. What man wouldn’t want to forget the atrocities of war; the ugly reality versus the philosophical rhetoric? If anything can restore the heart it is love, though in Antony’s case it was a love that was unable to achieve its full bloom in life. Only in death would it transcend the ordinary and find its true power. The bravado, the disillusionment, the defeat…all were present in his stirring performance. Potent images surround the events leading up to his death and even after, as his body is returned to Cleopatra in Egypt. Ken Booth’s lighting design magnified the impact of these moments in the co-directors’ vision, and many more throughout the play.

L-R: Diana Gonzalez-Morret, Susan Angelo, Geoff Elliott, and Jill Hill

Susan Angelo’s Cleopatra was petulant and proud, storming about the stage like a child determined to bend the will of others by sweetness or tantrum, whichever would serve in the moment. Cleopatra, after all, is one of the original drama queens, selfish and theatrical in the truest sense possible, and that part of her persona is especially well-served by Angelo, though there is a layer of subtle sensuality that is sacrificed by taking the character consistently in this direction. The passion between the pair plays out in rough excess until late in the play when their unquenchable appetite gives way to a loftier sentiment.

You’ll see fine performances among the supporting cast as well, especially Robertson Dean as Enobarbus, William Dennis Hunt as Lepidus, Max Rosenak as Octavius Caesar and Gregory North as Agrippa. Cleopatra’s women are a lovely and lively diversion and her eunuch (Amin El Gamal in drag) adds a measure of odd humor. The men’s ensemble extends the playing area out into the theater by dropping over the audience via ropes hung from the rafters for fight scenes.

So to my friends who resist Shakespeare because they are afraid they will be lost in the dark – I say go. My experiment showed me that it is possible to see a Shakespeare play without doing any preparation ahead of time and still understand it. All you need to do is go with an open mind and enough time to read the program notes. And since a production of Antony and Cleopatra doesn’t come around very often, you don’t want to miss A Noise Within’s. www.anoisewithin.org

1Source: Kat Bradley, MPhil (Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham: RSC©

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