Modern Love in APT’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’

Modern Love in APT’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’
Antony (Jim DeVita) and Cleopatra (Tracy Michelle Arnold) can't resist playing lovers' games in the Touchstone.

Business suits and briefcases obviously aren’t the sort of thing you expect to see in a Shakespearian drama set in ancient Rome and Egypt. So yes, it’s a little startling to see a Thidias (Eric Parks), canny advisor to Octavius Caesar (Christopher Sheard) stride onstage in American Players Theatre’s staging of Antony and Cleopatra looking for all the world like he’s just strolled out the front doors of a Fortune 500 company.

But beyond the modern take director Kate Buckley has opted for, this isn’t your typical Shakespearian staging at all. It’s the first time the Bard’s been featured in APT’s indoor Touchstone Theatre, and instead of the thirty-two characters the original script calls for, this version’s been honed to a lean and hungry seven.

In adapting Shakespeare’s sprawling drama (epic armies, scheming politicos and battles at sea, oh my) for the cozy Touchstone space, Buckley and her co-adaptor Jim DeVita—who also happens to star as Mark Antony—decided to shave away everything that didn’t touch directly on the relationship between the titular lovers. It’s a smart and savvy move. Stripping away the battle scenes and political intrigue—sorry, Pompey– hones the play’s focus on the ways two very powerful people become powerless as they’re unsettled and ultimately obliterated by love.

Initially, this Antony and Cleoptara shaped up to be an APT tour de force, with four of the company’s strongest actors (DeVita, Tracy Michelle Arnold, James Ridge and Colleen Madden) handling key roles. Even with Madden dropping out of the run to deal with family health issues, it still is: Abbey Siegworth absolutely rocks the role of Charmian, Cleopatra’s soothseeing maidservant. Her scene with Antony’s sneering right hand-man Enobarbus (Ridge) carries as much sexual fire as any between Antony and Cleopatra (Arnold).

Still, the main dramatic focus is on our title characters, and the romantic power games they can’t help playing with each other as their worlds crumble around them. DeVita’s Antony is one of the three most powerful men in the Roman world, but his love for Arnold’s Cleopatra has him dangerously unfocused and defensive. Arnold, meanwhile, gives us an Egyptian queen who absolutely delights in toying with her lover. Even when she receives news that ought to thrill her—the death of Antony’s first wife—she can’t resist teasing and tying him in knots with false rage and jealousy.

Arnold stages an emotional tour de force in the scene in which when she’s informed that Antony has, in a bald political move designed to avert another war, married Octavius’ sister. She’s anxious, then heartbroken, then furious in the space of mere moments. The heat between the leads feels genuine; even when everything’s falling apart and the Roman army’s at Alexandria’s gates, they still cling to one another as if their love could really conquer all. It can’t, of course, and DeVita creates a gripping portrait of a man raging and bargaining against his fate.  

Stage props gracefully manage to make the Touchstone stage seem as expansive as the Mediterranean Sea. A long drape of sheer fabric hanging from the ceiling cleverly does double duty as Cleopatra’s boudoir curtain and the mainsail of one of Antony’s battleships.

Buckley and DeVita’s modern staging works in almost every respect, but a couple of minor touches rankle and defy logic. The stage sound effects include the roar of jet fighters and whirr of helicopter blades overhead; with those devastating toys in the military arsenal, it seems a little odd to be discussing vanguard skirmishes and weighing whether the battle ought to be fought on land or at sea. More illogical is the fact that Enobarbus packs heat in one scene but Antony, his superior officer, never does, sticking with the less-than-trusty dagger when it’s time to act rashly to defend his honor. Obviously, the blade is needed to be consistent with the script—so why include a gun at all?

These are minor details, easily fixed, in an otherwise energizing adaptation that proves the Touchstone’s up to plays far larger than its scope suggests. It’d be fun to see Buckley and DeVita work their adaptive magic on other big-time Bard offerings. May we suggest Julius Caesar?