There is much to admire in the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival’s first-ever production of "Antony and Cleopatra," a story of love, seduction, conquest and folly in the turbulent years when the Roman Republic broke down and the Roman Empire was born.
It’s a sprawling drama that shifts locations like a movie script and depicts complex personal relationships as well as complicated political alliances, but director Sidonie Garrett and her actors present it with remarkable clarity.
The play is, among other things, a love story. But as the drama unfolds, the audience is presented with a basic question: Do Antony and Cleopatra love each other as much as they love themselves? Ultimately Shakespeare gives us a portrait of two narcissists coming unraveled.
Cleopatra is depicted as impulsive, emotionally volatile and willing to use her sexuality to claim power. Antony, meanwhile, becomes fixated on his own failures and tarnished reputation. Yes, he loves Cleopatra in an obsessive way, but is overcome by resentful rage when he sees that her seductive powers have robbed him of all that valued.
On another level, the piece is all about politics. Antony is one third of the triumvirate ruling Rome following the civil wars that erupted after Julius Caesar’s assassination. The youngest member of the group is the shrewd, ambitious Octavian, who will become the first Roman emperor, and he correctly sees that Antony has left himself vulnerable while frolicking in Egypt with Cleopatra.
The title roles in this production are played by John Rensenhouse and Kim Martin-Cotten, who work well together and bring plenty of charisma to the stage. The cadences of Rensenhouse’s distinctive delivery occasionally suggest that he’s wrestling with the language, but his performance is intelligent and vivid. Rensenhouse builds the performance carefully and in the second act, as Antony’s world is crumbling around him, the actor catches fire. This is some of his best work.
Martin-Cotten plays the Egyptian queen as Shakespeare paints her: paradoxical, self-obsessed, violent, smart and emotionally vulnerable. That’s a full plate for any actress, but Martin-Cotten crafts a memorable performance that is curiously intense and simultaneously remote. Martin-Cotten begins the performance on an emotional peak, which gives her no place to go. Her robust voice can be arresting but on Friday night she stayed in the upper register, which sometimes made her delivery shrill.
The production boasts several other strong performances. Bruce Roach is terrific as Enobarbus, Antony’s loyal philosophical follower, and gives the show its only truly sympathetic character; the inner conflict is acute for Enobarbus as he watches Antony deteriorate. As Octavian, Jason Chanos chalks up another impressive, thoughtful performance, which he delivers with great subtlety. Chanos can command the stage when he needs to, but his work is exceptionally nuanced.
The fine character actor Robert Gibby Brand offers a seemingly effortless but detailed turn as Lepidus, part of the triumvirate. And David Fritts handles the role of Pompey with assured charisma; Fritts, as always, maximizes clarity.
Cinnamon Schultz is double-cast as Charmian, Cleopatra’s chief attendant, and Octavia, Octavian’s sister, who marries Antony. The characters are radically different and Schultz is able to switch back and forth without missing a beat.
Good actors are all over the stage, even in the smallest roles. Yes, that’s Andrea Geurtsen and Emily Peterson, who are so impressive in the festival’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” as handmaidens to Cleopatra. Geurtsen doesn’t have a single line.
The play was written as a tragedy but it offers surprising bursts of humor. A sequence in which Cleopatra reacts with homicidal rage when she learns that Antony has married Octavia becomes a comic set piece, thanks in large part to Ben Auxier, who plays the hapless messenger. He may be quaking in his boots but he does his duty.
There’s lots of armed conflict off stage in this play, although the production includes a highly stylized, choreographed battle that almost works.
Costume designer Mary Traylor again gives the actors amazing clothes, some of which were repurposed costumes from the Lyric Opera’s production of Handel’s “Julius Caesar” a few years ago. Gene Friedman’s two-story scenic design is a nice piece of work, suggestive of the classical Mediterranean world without ever getting too specific. The Friday night performance, which was the final preview, suffered at times from a faulty sound system; the microphones worn by some of the actors cut out unpredictably.
This is the first professional production of “Antony and Cleopatra” in Kansas City since Missouri Rep staged it in 1982. So kudos to the festival for bringing one the Bard’s most interesting dramas to a local stage.