Monday, June 17, 2013

Antony & Cleopatra—HumanBeingCurious Productions—NE Portland



"…Infinite Variety”
 
The play is by William Shakespeare but is adapted for the stage in this production by its Director (and co-Founder of the group), Cassandra Schwanke, and Rowan Morrison.  It is playing at the Post5 Theatre location, 900 NE 81st Ave. in Portland.  It runs through June 30th at 7 pm.  For more information go to www.human-being-curious.com .

When Shakespeare did his plays, the women’s roles were played by young men, as females were not allowed on the stage as actors.  In this production, more than half the cast play at least three roles, changing genders, and Cleopatra is enacted by a young man.  And, if that is not enough to confuse you, the plays starts with Cleo, and her entourage, dancing to a modern rock song. 

But does all of this interfere with the basic enjoyment of, perhaps, the greatest playwright of all time?  Actually, no, because one of the definitions of a classic is that it is universal.  Meaning, to me, that it can still be interpreted and assimilated into the current culture, hundreds of years later.  Note, West Side Story, is completely modernized from his Romeo & Juliet (as is Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet), but with the basic message and story intact. 

This production is a marriage of the two styles.  It would take daring and talented writers to attempt this transition and so we introduce Ms. Schwanke & Mr. Morrison, who do an admirable job of it.  A&C is not one of the Bard’s better plays.  It is long-winded and episodic.  So the adapters simply trimmed the time, stream-lined the story, kept what is understandable and used modern lingo to fill in the gaps.  I studied Conversational Shakespeare back in New York, approaching the Bard’s speech as a foreign language, and then speaking it onstage in a conversational manner.  This is a kissing cousin to that method.

The tale tells of Antony (Orion J. Bradshaw), a Roman General, coming to Egypt to parlay with or conquer them, whichever is necessary.  The Roman society was highly political and interested in nothing less than world domination.  Jockeying for a favorable position was probably regarded as a sport.  Caesar (Phillip J. Berns) was in charge and Antony, his trusted ally.  But instead of quelling the tides of mistrust in Egypt, Antony rode them instead, by coupling with its Queen, Cleopatra (Chip Sherman).

This did not sit well with Antony’s boss, so he decides to marry him off to his sister, Octavia (Mariel Sierra), to cement their alliance.  But the enchantment of Cleo was overpowering and he hurried back to her arms and bed.  Caesar felt betrayed and vented his flaming fury toward this betrayal.  Cleo, sensing a defeat of Antony, and wanting to be on the winning side for her country’s sake, allied herself with Caesar.  This led to Antony taking his own life, feeling betrayed himself and sensing that it was the only honorable way out.  Cleo, realizing her mistake, also follows suit, as her only other choice was to be a slave of Rome.

This is the basic story in a nutshell but it is the marvelous performances, the intrigue of the relationships, and the updating of the language that is compelling in this production.  The script (Scwanke & Morrison), albeit a bit jarring at times, traversing between the Bard’s effusive poetic prose and the modern idiom, works very well in telling the tale and exposing the soul of the piece.  And Schwanke’s direction keeps the story flowing forward and yet never loses or confuses focus as to who these characters are or their agendas.

Sherman is terrific as Cleopatra.  After, perhaps, the initial shock of knowing it’s a male playing the part, you are completely captivated by his immersion into the role and his conviction of her purpose.  It is also gratifying to note that it is played by a brown-skin person, as that (or black) undoubtedly is what she was (as was probably Christ…but that’s another discussion).  Anyway, his delicate movements and erratic mood changes fit the role perfectly.

And Bradshaw is all fight, fury and frustration as the paranoid Antony.  He, too, is moody and flies off the handle at the least provocation.  It is to the actor’s credit that he is able to flit from one emotion to another in a split-second, giving us the impression that he could explode and self-destruct at any moment which, eventually, he does.  His command of his physical movements is perfectly in step with the character’s emotional ups and downs.

Ty Boice as Enobarbus, Antony’s trusted friend, is also exceptional.  Since we see this story from his POV, his narration provides valuable insights into the proceedings.  Boice’s command of the language and his precise diction is the best in the show.  He is truly watchable as he moves about the stage, his face revealing all the many emotions the character must feel and, as mentioned, his comfort with the words.  This is only one of many roles I’ve seen him excel in.

Another prize is the versatility of the supporting players.  Berns has never disappointed me in the shows I’ve seen him in, but this is probably his best.  He goes from playing a flighty eunuch, in dress and high heels; to donning Caesar’s guise, all male and calculating; to a nerdy messenger.  What an amazing performer!

Sierra as a mannish servant of Cleo’s and then as the meek Octavia is also quite an accomplishment.  And Morrison, as well, in a variety of roles, all nicely and separately defined.  Amanda Lee as Charmian, her handmaiden, plays the role aptly as the stereotypic,  dumb blonde.  Winstron Bishof and John Bruner are also good in the composite characters they portray.

This is well worth seeing and I recommend it.  But it does deal with adult situations and language so may not suit everyone’s tastes.  And, if you’re a purist about Shakespeare, this may not be your cup of tea, either.  But, obviously, I think it is worthwhile.  If you do choose to go, please tell them Dennis sent you.