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Antony and Cleopatra
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Mike Donahue
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
May 22, 2015

Jay Stratton, Shirine Babb Photo by J. David Levy Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Jay Stratton, Shirine Babb
Photo by J. David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis 

It’s one of my favorite times of the year in St. Louis again.  That’s the time for free Shakespeare in Forest Park, where top-notch local and national performers and technicians put on a production in front of thousands in the green fields of Shakespeare Glen, brought to us by the excellent team behind Shakespeare Festival St. Louis. This year, the set looks like an abstract art piece, the costumes are richly detailed, the the performances strong and memorable as the the Festival takes on the Bard’s historical tragedy Antony and Cleopatra.

I had read  Antony and Cleopatra back in college and had seen the old BBC filmed version of it, but it had been a long time since I last saw this play. It’s somewhat surprising seeing it after all this time, as the story plays out as a bit of a melodrama, and, at least in this production, the leads come across as a pair of self-obsessed, hyper-hormonal teenagers.  They’re both obviously older than that, but this has an air of “high school” about it, as Marc Antony (Jay Stratton) petulantly defies his fellow Roman leaders Octavius (Charles Pasternak) and Lepidus (Gary Glasgow) so he can hang out in Egypt with his paramour Cleopatra (Shirine Babb). Cleopatra then gets jealous when Antony’s wife dies and he has to go back to Rome and make a political marriage with Octavius’s sister, Octavia (Raina K. Houston). Cleopatra is entertained at her own court by her handmaidens Charmian (Kari Ely) and Ira (also Houston), and the droll eunuch Mardian (Alan Knoll), while Antony gets involved in a sea battle that Cleopatra’s navy runs (or sails) away from. Then Antony gets mad at Cleopatra, but they kiss and make up.  Then there’s more intrigue involving Antony’s various followers and another failed sea battle, whereupon the tragedy happens, involving botched suicide attempts, swords and the infamous poisonous snakes and one of my favorite Shakespearean stage directions (Cleopatra “applies an asp”).

This show plays out as much lighter than I had remembered, with a few strong dramatic elements to keep it grounded.  The cast here, made up of some excellent out-of-town and local performers, is mostly first-rate.  Babb–as the vain  and impetuous Cleopatra–and Pasternak–as the more mature, imperially commanding Octavius–are the biggest standouts.  Both possess the regal bearing, strong stage presence and rich, resonant voices required for their roles, and they play them with style and substance.  Babb’s best moments are with Ely and Houston as her handmaidens, and her chemistry with Stratton’s indecisive Antony is good.  Pasternak, who was so dynamic as Hotspur in last year’s Henry IV, makes a memorable return here as the very much in control Octavius. There are also memorable performances from Ely as the loyal Charmian, Conan McCarty as Antony’s conflicted follower Enobarbus, Houston as both Iras and Octavia, and Knoll as Mardian. It’s a well-cast ensemble all around, with a great deal of energy and command of Shakespeare’s language.

Technically, this show is top-notch as well. The set, designed by Scott C. Neale,  is more modern in style, with an abstract suggestion of ancient classical columns coated in shiny, iridescent gold foil. The richly appointed costumes by Dottie Marshall Inglis are more literally classical, with some modern touches like trousers and boots for Cleopatra in her war scenes. The colors–rich reds, purples and blues, along with the ubiquitous gold trim–are vibrant and fittingly regal. There’s also striking lighting from John Wylie and Rusty Wandall’s crisp, clear sound design that helps to make the play approachable in its outdoor setting. The play also features an excellent use of atmospheric music by composer Greg Mackender, and some memorable special effects involving water cannons that drew applause from the audience.

One of the many great things about Shakespeare is that his plays can be easily set in all sorts of different ways, both classical and modern. With this production of Antony and Cleopatra, SFSTL has brought St. Louis audiences the best of both of those worlds.  It’s a classical drama with some modern sensibilities and and strong sense of style. It’s educational and thoroughly entertaining.

Charles Pasternak, Raina K. Houston Photo by J. David Levy Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Charles Pasternak, Raina K. Houston
Photo by J. David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Antony and Cleopatra is being presented by Shakespeare Festival St. Louis in Shakespeare Glen, Forest Park until June 14, 2015.

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