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Couple of Comedians

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Antony and Cleopatra Mix Pain with Pleasure in Part II of'Roman Repertory'

Belly laughs at a Shakespeare tragedy? Who would have thought? If you take your cue from the raucous amusement in the Shakespeare Theatre’s current “Antony and Cleopatra,” you could easily mistake it for a comedy. But that’s not a bad thing. After all, what’s so wrong with a good dose of chuckles before facing the inevitable tragic end of an ill-fated romance?

It seems that director Michael Kahn’s interpretation of this infamous love story is right on the money. Kahn has directed the play twice before — for the American Shakespeare Theatre in 1972 and the Folger Shakespeare Theatre in 1989 — but didn’t feel he “got it right,” according to assistant director Alan Paul. This time he need not worry.

Meant to be the second part after “Julius Caesar” in the Shakespeare Theatre’s revolving “Roman Repertory,” this production is lively, entertaining and downright fun to watch. Despite being challenged with constant scene changes and a lead (Andrew Long) who signed on to play Mark Antony at the last minute, “Antony and Cleopatra” appears effortless.

Kudos should be given all around, but clearly the deciding factor here is Royal Shakespeare Company veteran Suzanne Bertish, cast as the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra. Less the traditional seductress who entices Mark Antony from Roman politics, Bertish is more of a classic “drama queen” — a role with which some in the audience may self-identify, all are familiar with, and most find comic and endearing.

If Bertish weren’t so gifted, her exaggerated character might resemble a caricature. But like Lucille Ball, the queen of comedy who could weave slapstick into heartfelt emotion, Bertish’s believability allows us to care about Cleopatra and rejoice in her humanness even while we’re laughing at the queen’s absurdity.

Bertish’s compact fireball enlists grandiose movements, overblown animations and ingeniously placed pregnant pauses to woo her lover and scheme to keep him from escaping her trance. Couple that confidence with her character’s frequent propensity for neurosis and paranoia and you’ve got the ingredients for hilarity.

Mocking the powers of Rome and faking poor health to distract Antony, this Cleopatra repeatedly orders her entourage to spy on him and report back to her, despite the fact that he is clearly under her spell anyway. “If you find him sad, say I am dancing; if in mirth, report that I am suddenly sick,” she tells her attendants.

When her messenger brings news of Antony’s sudden engagement to Octavia, Bertish takes the opportunity to milk it for all it’s worth. After browbeating her messenger (played by Scott Parkinson), she forces him to gather more details of Antony’s new bride. On his return, shaking in his boots, he lies to Cleopatra, saying Octavia is short and unbecoming. When he slips up and mentions that she is only 30 years old, we wait in gleeful anticipation for Cleopatra’s next meltdown.

Kahn’s decision to cast Antony and Cleopatra as an older couple feeds into the queen’s concerns of vanity. Unabashed lust from suitors well into their 50s is also refreshing and liberating. Dressed in provocative outfits by costume designer Jennifer Moeller, it’s clear that Cleopatra wears both her heart and sexuality on her sleeve.

Older characters also position the play as the sequel to “Julius Caesar.” Historically, “Antony and Cleopatra” picks up events four years after the Roman ruler’s assassination. In “Caesar,” Antony was a young, vibrant and conspiring politician and warrior. This play finds him years later with gray hair, a paunch and noticeably distracted demeanor.

“Antony in this play has fallen from the top of his game — from where he was in ‘Caesar,’” co-director Paul said. “Here he’s lost his rhetorical power. His language is less impressive — he’s either lost it or given it up. He’s not himself.”

We can also tell the passage of time by the soothsayer. Scorned by Julius Caesar and again by Cleopatra’s ladies in waiting, here the prophet is much older and, ironically, blind.

In addition, Kahn succeeds in exploiting the script’s other comedic sections, such as when Roman rulers Antony, Octavius, Lepidus and their rival Pompey celebrate a peace treaty — a scene that takes on a life of its own. D.C. favorite Ted van Griethuysen, in particular, shines as a highly intoxicated Lepidus. The uproar culminates when Antony, standing on a chair and encircled by his buddies, performs a ridiculous dance inspired by African rhythms.

The play, of course, takes a serious turn in Act II, which makes these carefree moments all the more enjoyable. Shakespeare, however, tinges this merriment with the irony that it is Cleopatra’s final trick she plays on Antony that is her own undoing.

The play’s scene changes are exceptionally fluid even though the action jumps back and forth from Rome to Egypt — from the masculine west to the feminine east. James Noone, who designed a single set for the “Roman Repertory,” simply lowers an elegant curtain to signify Cleopatra’s domain, hangs Roman flags from balconies for Rome, and uses a giant sail for Pompey’s ship galley.

The play’s end leaves us with mixed emotions. Of course we mourn our heroes’ losses when tragedy invariably strikes. But although Antony has fallen from his game in this play, we’re satisfied to have witnessed that the Shakespeare Theatre is on top of theirs.

Antony and Cleopatra through July 6 Shakespeare Theatre’s Sidney Harman Hall 610 F St., NW Tickets are .50 to .75 For more information, please call (202) 547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.

About the Author

Lisa Troshinsky is the theater reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999