Review: 'Antony & Cleopatra' at NW Classical Theater Company

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By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
Can a ruler also be a lover? Can two rulers pair off romantically as a couple, on two different continents, and maintain their respective rules? What if the lovers have a cautious, yet cold-blooded "ally," whose sister one has married and abandoned and who has grown tired of their antics? These are some of the questions posed in Shakespeare's unwieldy, seldom-staged tragedy "Antony & Cleopatra," which runs through March 10 at the Shoebox Theater. The play is set during the Second Triumvirate, when Rome's republic had ended, and its political power was split between Octavian (later Augustus Caesar), Lepidus, and Marc Antony. If that sounds a little abstract, it plays that way, as well. The audience is told repeatedly that the world is in the balance, or that one-third of the world is, but coming as they do from one man in a toga to another, the words sound like some strange hip-hop boast, rather than historical fact. The triumvirate is already wobbly when the play begins in Cleopatra's bed chamber, where she and Antony are cavorting, to Antony's general's, and Octavian's dismay. He has a kingdom to run, they complain, and he's spending all his time in bed. They have a point, but we see something different. As played by the excellent Kevin Connell, Antony is a man running on twice the battery power of anyone around him. When he's in love, he's really in love. When he's commanding an army, he's all barked orders and bonhomie. His trouble comes when the two are crossed. In contrast to Antony's impassioned sincerity, come Cleopatra's calculations. In the triumvirate world it's different for queens. For her, winning at love means winning her freedom and sovereignty. Her passions never seem unleashed like Antony's, because she does not allow herself such luxuries; she has a country to think of. Set against these two lovers, is the more business-like Octavian. As enacted by Tom Walton, the Caesar-to-be has no time or compassion for distracting entanglements. Against his better judgment, he's persuaded to marry his sister to Antony, in an effort to preserve their alliance, but the remedy only temporarily postpones their showdown. Octavian is no cold fish, however. Walton, in the show's standout performance, captures the charisma of the literal world beater, all of whose drive has been harnessed and channeled into the conquering and control of the empire. If the play focused exclusively on these three and their conflicts, it would be riveting. Alas, it doesn't. The enlightenment-era poet and playwright John Dryden, who wrote when the Ancient Greek practice of preserving unity of time in place was in fashion, sought to "correct" Shakespeare's play with his own version of the story, "All for Love, or the World Well Lost." It's easy to laugh at his hubris now, but, after enduring countless scenes of two soldiers sprinting onto stage to describe battles we don't see, one understands his motivation. Perhaps Antony's spirit is too big for the stage, or, perhaps, as his general says, just before quitting his service, "When valor preys on reason, it eats the sword it fights with." Reason does feel victimized here and there as the play loses its thread, and one wishes at those times to be back in Cleopatra's quarters or at the negotiating table, where things crackle. The Northwest Classical Theater, which staged the play, is one of Portland's gems. Performing in the aptly named Shoebox Theater, an in the round venue with thirty eight seats (one for each of the Bard's plays) all with in a foot or two of the stage, they offer expert renditions of classic plays. Their performances are free of the patrician accents, monotone declamations, and hammy antiqueness that can mar plays like this. Instead they bring them to life, inches before your eyes. At this show, in particular, the drinking scene aboard Pompey's boat, and Antony's final scene with his soldier Eros both contained an immediacy and danger that were electric. One is grateful for the chance to see a revival of a play like Antony & Cleopatra, which comes around so rarely, yet one can't help risking ingratitude and declare it's no Hamlet - just an hour or so with the world's greatest lovers, the back history of Rome's greatest emperor, and a bunch of guys in sandals that get in their way. "Antony & Cleopatra," Northwest Classical Theater Company. Thru March 10th.
leela1Leela Ginelle is a journalist, playwright, and columnist for PQ Monthly. Leela can be reached at leela@pqmonthly.com.