Antony and Cleopatra is classified as a Shakespearean tragedy; and yet, as is the case with much of the celebrated playwright’s work, its lines are infused with comedic relief and romance, as well. A ticket to this particular production at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre Center is worth its weight in Egyptian gold, simply as a cultural break from our frenetic modern routines. From the minute the house lights darken, until the tragic finale, the Berlind Theatre audience is treated to a sensory spectacle of theatrical proportions.
Director Emily Mann’s stark yet effective set, transports the audience between the primary settings of Alexandria and Rome with the use of giant, illuminated obelisks in the background that alternate between hues of languid blue and regal maroon.
This visual effect also mirrors the mood of each scene, contrasting the blithe sanctuary of the lovers to the royal magnificence of Caesar’s palace and other locations in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Sound plays a crucial role in setting the tone and fueling the plot. Surprisingly, while this theatrical element is also minimalist by design, (performed by one musician), its quality enhances the ambiance of the play, voluminously.
Thunderous booms evoke the Roman cavalry storming a battlefield, and delicately struck pipe bells resonate flute-like, as solo percussionist Mark Katsaounis works his harmonious magic from the corner, stage left. At the post-production discussion, several audience members commented on the emotional intensity of the score. Unfortunately, Katsaounis had to catch a train immediately following the performance, and could not accept the audience’s compliments personally.
The two-and-one-quarter-hour performance blew by with only a few bland, Roman soldier scenes that failed to hold my attention. Nicole Ari Parker’s performance as the mesmerizing Cleopatra validated the initial critical reviews; she is, indeed, talented and beautiful. Although I must admit, I was somewhat disappointed in her vocal presence that, at times, sounded shrill and lacked the commanding quality one would expect from a ruler. Due to the relentless performance schedule, as well as Parker’s admitted lack of Shakespearean acting chops, this minor flaw is excusable and did not interfere too much with the overall quality of her performance.
Her romantic partner, however, played by the imposingly handsome Esau Pritchett, mastered his role with impressive talent. During the post-production discussion, Pritchett confessed to having played the lead in Othello on multiple occasions. Unlike his female counterpart, Pritchett’s Shakespearean expertise is evident in the strength and tenor of his vocal skills.
One actor who particularly shone onstage was Zainab Jah, who played a secondary role as one of Cleopatra’s two female servant-companions. It was no surprise when Jah announced that she’d performed in at least half a dozen Shakespearean plays to date.
There were a few awkward moments when laughter erupted from some areas of the audience during scenes that were scripted as somber. One such occurrence was during the dramatic dual-suicide scene in which Antony’s personal guard, Eros, stabs himself after refusing Antony’s wishes to be killed. Antony then follows suit, driving the sword into his own chest in melodramatic Shakespearean fashion.
The actors, who seemed more curious, than disappointed, mentioned this peculiar reaction during their post-production discussion. While they attributed it to the genius of Shakespeare, I am more inclined to ascribe it to the relative immaturity of approximately one third of the audience who may have been experiencing Renaissance theatrics for the first time. Nonetheless, more convincing acting during these particular moments, might have achieved the intended reaction from the entire crowd, Shakespeare newbies as well as veteran theatergoers.
In spite of my minor criticisms, I encourage others to claim a seat for one undeniably entertaining night at the Berlind Theatre, before this performance run ends on October 5th. Travel in time, back to an ancient civilization where all roads led to Rome, yet one rogue Roman general and his Egyptian queen, were guided by their blind passion down a path to self-destruction.
All photos courtesy of McCarter Theater Center’s website exclusively designed for this production: http://www.mccarter.org/antonyandcleopatra/