Duality runs throughout Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra: Rome vs. Egypt, sensuality vs. discipline, wife vs. mistress, honor vs. betrayal. Although the play offers a visual feast for designers—two widely different physical worlds need to be shown—a successful production also needs two major performances, and that may be why it’s the least performed of the great tragedies. Darko Tresnjak’s production, in keeping with Theatre for a New Audience’s theme this season of cultural connections among Africa, Europe, and America, features an updating of the period from double-digits A.D. to the late 19th century. Linda Cho’s costumes evoke the Four Feathers era of British rule in North Africa, with tall helmets and khakis for the Romans, albeit with sashes and chevrons in turquoise that look a bit flashy for those stoic folk. The Egyptian court exudes the Alexandria of Constantine Cavafy (whose poem “The God Forsakes Antony” serves as an epigraph in the program): the attendant Alexas wears a black suit and a fez and carries a horsehair whisk, while the eunuch Mardian (a strikingly tall Erik Singer) has the pantalooned appearance of an Arabian Nights character.
As Cleopatra, Laila Robins is a fine queen of the Nile, with pre-Raphaelite curls and feline cheekbones. Her infinite variety encompasses strength, vanity, sensuality, intelligence, and passion, blazingly displayed when she pummels the messenger who reports Antony’s marriage to Caesar’s sister Octavia. But Robins’s Cleopatra also has an amusing self-awareness. When her handmaiden Charmian praises Julius Caesar, irritating the queen, Charmian points out that she is only echoing Cleopatra’s own statements about her late lover. “My salad days, when I was green in judgment,” says the queen in an unusual reading that turns the line into a throwaway joke on herself, yet without any revisionist disdain for her former opinion.
The character of Antony is harder to pull off, because the hero of Julius Caesar hasn’t much opportunity to show nobility. He’s hit the skids. Unfortunately, Marton Csokas hasn't whatever innate charisma might be needed to suggest a formerly exalted general; rather, he comes off as an ordinary enlisted man. He’d be an effective Enobarbus, if John Douglas Thompson’s Enobarbus weren’t already solid enough.
Antony’s big opportunity to show his mettle comes in his return to Rome, yet here Tresnjak, whose touches are often insightful, seems to undercut Antony’s preparedness as a warrior when the triumvirate (Caesar, Lepidus, Antony) faces the rebellious Pompey with only their swords, while Pompey’s men wield rifles. The carousing in the same scene is conflated with a later scene when Octavius and his sister Octavia (Lisa Velten Smith) enter; the result is that here they discover Antony sporting with a wench. It’s amusing, but not a moment that lends Antony luster, since he's caught with his pants down (figuratively).
The character certainly doesn’t need help undermining himself. He lets Cleopatra (Robins, wearing the pants literally, with blouse and boots) persuade him to let her join the disastrous sea battle at Actium. Rather than die by his own hand, he asks Eros (Randy Harrison) to kill him, and after Eros dispatches himself rather than do it, Antony botches his own suicide. On his deathbed he tells Cleopatra that Maecenas is the one to trust in Caesar’s entourage, when it’s Dolabella who proves sympathetic.
Tresnjak contributes several inspired touches. Early on this Cleopatra is pregnant, and delivered of a baby; as a counterpoint, Octavia becomes pregnant after her marriage to Antony and also delivers a child. (It’s a fascinating idea, yet it points up that Antony is more potent in the bedroom than on the battlefield.) And as the messenger cowers before Cleopatra after his first beating, Mardian nods his head from behind her to help him choose the safest answers to her questions.
As usual, Tresnjak gets good work from his young actors (as well as from veteran George Morfogen as even-tempered Lepidus, both a diplomat and a dupe). James Knight is such a virile, principled Pompey that one hopes there’s a Coriolanus in his future, and Michael Rogers as the Clown who brings the asp introduces levity when it's most needed. Only Jeffrey Carlson’s neurotic Octavius proves disappointing, with a habit of putting his hands to his face as if he’s about to do an impression of Jack Benny or Ed Wynn. He's not steely enough for an emperor-to-be. On the whole, though, Tresnjak’s production has so many assets that it would be a shame to miss it.