Perhaps no celebrity power couple in history has been as celebrated as Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Today's Brangelinas and Bennifers might fuel a thousand paparazzi and blog hits, but can only aspire to the glamour and empire-shaking influence of the Egyptian queen and the Roman general, who had everything but a great compound name like "Cleopantony."
For its 26th season, Georgia Shakespeare presents a new adaptation of Antony and Cleopatra that emphasizes the pair's hold on the public imagination, both in their own time and through the ages. Dramaturg Amlin Gray restructures the play so that we hear Roman power brokers and other supporting characters talk about the pair long before we see them. Antony and Cleopatra sound more divine than mortal, as if the little people can only aspire to their passion, beauty and achievement.
As the title roles, Chris Kayser and Tess Malis Kincaid convey both larger-than-life personalities and all-too-human failings. Kincaid has the posture and hauteur of a royal statue come to life, but also finds humor in Cleopatra's vanity and temper. The play's funniest scenes involve ill-fated messengers stuck with delivering the queen news about Antony's various wives.
Meanwhile, Kayser's lean figure and weathered features suggest an Antony declining toward middle age, as if his body no longer quite lives up to his ideal. When he agrees to meet with Octavius (Joe Knezevich), his ambitious, untrustworthy partner in ruling Rome, Kayser conveys Antony's arrogance and almost amused contempt for the younger man. Antony and Cleopatra can't keep their hands off each other and are clearly turned on by each other's fame, but each falls prey to their own sense of entitlement.
In Gray's version of the text, Mark Antony's right-hand man, Enobarbus (Allan Edwards) narrates the show. His recurring speeches effectively illustrate life in the shadow of the powerful, particularly as Enobarbus grows more disillusioned by Antony's self-destructive choices in the name of love. Edwards also superbly recites the play's verse, including the famous scene of Cleopatra arriving on an opulent barge like a deity consorting with mortals. The play's language proves so rich and luxurious that you could shut your eyes to the play and simply enjoy the words. But don't leave them shut for long, as Antony and Cleopatra also features some of the most drawn-out death scenes in Shakespeare's canon.
Apart from Kincaid, Kayser and Edwards' deeply felt work, the production struggles against some quirks and flaws. Sidney Roberts costumes Cleopatra's court like an Egyptian Hollywood, but the Romans look more like 18th-century Prussians. Maybe the difference is intended to convey a tension comparable to exotic Africa colliding with colonial-minded Europe, but the concept falls flat. The play features a huge cast and some of the younger actors seem over their heads. The restructuring reduces the clarity of some plot threads, such as Roman usurper Sextus (Bruce Evers), who appears in a few scenes and then vanishes.
Critics have compared the play to a middle-aged version of Romeo and Juliet, as both pairs of lovers would rather commit suicide than live apart. Antony and Cleopatra, however, also deeply love themselves and repeatedly refuse to do anything to compromise their own images. In part, Antony and Cleopatra demonstrates the tragedy of taking to heart your own publicity.