Not a minute of our lives should stretch without some pleasure in it. The Folger Theatre is stretching nearly two and a half very deliberate minutes of theatrical pleasure into their current production of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. One of the Bard’s tragic histories, or historical tragedies as it straddles both categories soundly, this alluring and tempting production is an enticing start for the 2017/2018 theatrical season at The Folger. Directed by Robert Richmond, this production will titillate the eye and ear with striking visuals, intense performances, and an overall perfect recreation of a tragically historic moment frozen in time.
Something wondrous strange awaits the eye upon entering the theatre; a unique configuration for The Folger, theatre in the round. With a complete overhaul of the theatre’s interior, Director Robert Richmond and Scenic Designer Tony Cisek have fabricated a fantastical scene, initially the chamber of Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, upon which theatergoers can feast their eyes. The set itself, like most appearing inside the Folger— despite this unique configuration that has moved seating banks all around the play space— is simplistic, allowing the focus to be honed in upon the performers.
Enhancing the unique aesthetic that Cisek and Richmond have created, Costume Designer Mariah Hale draws the eye’s attention with alluring azure selections for the servants of Cleopatra. These mesmerizing and almost hypnotic garments, with their fluid draping and delicate hues of blue and white, are as intoxicating as the enchantress herself. Hale spares no expense when crafting the gold warrior armor garments for the Queen, representing ferocity and strength in the design of these sartorial selections. Hale keeps the costumes of those in Rome— like Caesar and Enobarbus, those of a soldier’s calling— simple, yet identifiable. There is no mistaking that they are of military greatness, but Hale’s design work with these costumes is intentionally banal by comparison to the lavish threads displayed for Cleopatra and those serving her.
The ancient sway of time slips through the space at the hands of Composer and Sound Designer Adam Stamper. With an intense and percussive soundscape that drives the shifts between scene changes, Stamper’s musical composition speaks of urgency, pushing the show forward in time. This is a tremendously useful vice that aligns solidly with Director Robert Richmond’s overall pacing of the performance, keeping those droll bits of history from dragging along at their leisure. Stamper’s hybrid conglomeration of musical underscoring creates a sense of history and fantasy, blending chords together to inspire the imagination in its work to set the era of the show. Augmented and accented by the work of Lighting Designer Andrew F. Griffin, there are striking moments that almost freeze time entirely, stepping out of their place in history. These moments are often woven fast around great emotional trauma, like the reception of news when a character has died.
As mentioned, Richmond’s pacing of the show is precise. What’s more impressive still is the subtle immersion that he allows the audience into the world of Cleopatra’s decadence as the show gets underway. With the servants wandering through the space, preparing for the arrival of their Queen— and offering those seated near enough to the edge of the scene’s perimeter a grape or a cheeky retort— there is a sense of envelopment that embraces the audience before the first words of the text fall to their ear. While not being wholly immersive, Richmond’s pre-show approach to the text— along with the intimacy of the new stage configuration— allows the audience to engage with both the history and Shakespeare’s fantasy elements well contained within the drama on a more personal level.
Moving like one fluid ensemble, every member of the production fits their part like a well-oiled cog in the grander machine that is Antony and Cleopatra. Director Robert Richmond takes a surprising choreographic approach to some of the more enticing moments of the play, engaging the men in tribal and almost tantric dances of war. There are celebratory movements as well as enraged ones that overlay sections of transition, showcasing armies at war or preparing for it. This choreography, which is both brutal and beautiful in its execution, is what sets Richmond’s vision apart from most productions of Antony and Cleopatra, taking the audience into the world of dance and interpretive movement to fully explore Shakespeare’s intentions with the piece.
John Floyd, as the cheeky eunuch Mardian, takes liberties with a sweet voice, but delivers his quips with a zesty zing, and is the most interactive of the servants featured in the pre-show entertainment. Simoné Elizabeth Bart, as Charmian, and Nicole King, as Iras, play well off one another, acting chipper with gossip fully loaded upon their tongues. The trio complete a saucy triangle that serve Cleopatra and her lover, Antony, well throughout the earlier scenes of the performance.
Anthony Michael Martinez, who later turns to play Eros but starts his life in the performance as the Soothsayer, is hardened of spirit and of appearance. Such is the way when he is doling out fortunes and fates in this prophetic character role. Far cheerier than the heavy-tongued Soothsayer is Nigel Gore as the friendly Enobarbus. Not quite a full dose of comedic relief, Gore approaches the character with subtle mirth, serving the function of his placement within the construct of the show. Growling, ferocious of nature and of physicality, Chris Genebach, as the stalwart and turgid Agrippa, is as much a marching stone in the army of Caesar as any. With leaden feet whenever he plays ther role of the arriving messenger, and a solemn textual delivery— often physically elevated from the overhang of the balcony— Genebach is a solid addition to the ensemble.
Round and round Lepidus (Robbie Gay) and Octavius Caesar (Dylan Paul) go, chasing one another’s textual circles when it comes to deciding the fate of Antony on behalf of his poor behavior abroad. Paul, though young and fair of face, wears every bit the heaviness that is burdened upon the character when it comes to swiftly delivering a believable Octavius Caesar. During what could arguably be the most visually stunning moment in the play— wherein the central disc of the stage begins to slowly rotate amid haunting blue and white lighting with the three male lead actors seated equidistant from one another in it— Paul’s character rails and rages at Antony while Gay’s character attempts to defend or at the very least, keep the peace among them. The dynamic that these two actors create in that moment and carry forth through the remainder of their performance is gripping.
Roguish, wayward, cocky, and yet still sensually charming and charismatic, Antony (Cody Nickell) appears to have it all. If all be embodied and encompassed in Cleopatra (Shirine Babb), the glistening bauble, jewel of the Nile, that is. From their initial encounter, Nickell and Babb make an electrifying connection; this pair of playful lovers embodies the spirit of the wayward Mark Antony and Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. Possessed of a scorching desert salt and sun that could burn a hole straight into Duat when she becomes enraged or throws a fit of tantrum, Babb displays all the flavors of a shimmering sapphire glistening in radiant eyes of Nickell’s Antony. Nickell holds his own against the astonishing Babb, and against those playing men of Rome, with his bombastic personality tempered by strokes of charisma and sexual energy. Both actors carry these figures of history, no small burden, squarely upon their shoulders and with a welcome and engaging justice that keeps the audience enrapt and engrossed fully in their story from raunchy beginning to tragic ending.
Tis a tragic history and historical tragedy well explored. The Folger Theatre’s Antony and Cleopatra is a delightful production that sets the bar high for the remainder of the season yet to come.
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission
Antony and Cleopatra plays through November 19, 207 at the Folger Theatre in the Folger Shakespeare Library— 201 E. Capitol Street SE in Washington DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 544-7077 or purchase them online.