Alas, Shakespeare in the Rough. I saw it, Horatio . . .

[ Picking up from the end of the last post, here is is what I wrote in early September 2006 after seeing Shakespeare in the Rough’s Antony and Cleopatra—as it turned out, the next-to-last performance that company ever gave. My views about summer Shakespeare don’t seem to have changed much.]

Unfortunately, it’s too late for me to recommend Shakespeare in the Rough’s production of Antony and Cleopatra in Withrow Park, Toronto, because the last performance starts in an hour and a half. I’m glad I caught it yesterday even though the weather was dreadful for outdoor theater; the dank chill after a northern tropical storm (yes, NYC friends, Ernesto passed through and we got for one day what you’ve been getting for a week) that promises still more rain. Come to think of it, that’s not bad weather for an outdoor Lear. Or Macbeth. But not Antony and Cleopatra, which requires Egyptian heat.

I’ve had good fortune with this play, having seen a couple of extraordinary productions. There was the Public Theater production with Vanessa Redgrave as Cleopatra, maybe thirty years past prime for the part but doing everything she could to turn the clock back short of eating the sling in which Antony’s death scene is staged. (Yes, Antony dies in a sling—“I am swinging, Egypt, swinging.”  And Caesar is presented as a fully fledged dictator, addressing people from Big Brother overhead screens, but he’s played by a 12-year-old girl.)  And I was right up against the stage apron for the Globe’s now legendary 1999 all-male production with Mark Rylance as Cleopatra—an extraordinary yet weird performance in which, I think, never quite letting us forget that a man is playing the ultimate embodiment of womanhood was part of the point. (I love the Globe. All of the best Shakespeare I’ve seen has been by them—that Antony, the Cymbeline they brought to the Brooklyn Academy of Music some years ago, and most of all the transcendent Measure for Measure that came to Brooklyn last December; utterly unlike the Kevin Kline–Andre Braugher reggae production that turned me permanently off to Shakespeare in Central Park.

This production wasn’t up to that empyrean level, but it was solidly well done in the minimalist fashion I’ve come to think is the best way to go with Shakespeare. Withrow Park is a real, small community park of the kind you don’t find much in Manhattan or Brooklyn; a couple of blocks with a play area (familiar in New York, but usually attached to schools) and plenty of green space. Any play in such a space is going to feel small-scale, intimate. So you stretch out a plastic map of the Mediterranean world between two trees at the bottom of a low crest, mark off paths for the actors, invite people to sit on the crest. Add some chairs, a wire spool table, and you’re set. That’s all you need. That and the words.

That’s especially true of Antony and Cleopatra. Here Shakespeare’s style is so fluid that it’s—it’s a cliché, but there’s no other word for it—cinematic. He cuts from one locale to another in short scenes, from Rome to Alexandria to battle scenes and back again, in such a way that he clearly meant situations to be juxtaposed and played off against each other. He must have meant it to unroll as one continuous action. (Rereading the play in the Arden Third edition, which doesn’t provide headings for act and scene divisions—just marks them in the margin with brackets—was distracting at first just because of all those rapid shifts; but then I got into it and understood that yes, this was the way to go.)  You have to be able to move very fast to get that effect. There’s no time for scenery changes. A big production that required blackouts would strangle the work in its cradle. But with a just tarp, four chairs, and a wire spool, you can get the effects Shakespeare plainly intended. Here the director, Ruth Madoc-Jones, made good use of the openness of the park. Battles and offstage action were represented by vignettes way in the background or at the corner of the eye, capturing something of Shakespeare’s thrilling sense of simultaneity. Entrances were frequently from behind the stage, so you could see the actors approaching for the next scene a long way off—usually effective, and resulting in at least one real coup de theatre: when Antony marries Octavia, Caesar’s sister, they’re standing on that wire spool. The next scene is set in Cleopatra’s court. With Antony and Octavia on the spool, Cleopatra enters by running from a great distance, jumping onto the spool to come between Antony and Octavia, screaming while she does so—and we’re right into the next scene.

The acting was also solid. Leslie Dowey conveyed Cleopatra’s passion without undue screechiness. Sean Dixon was maybe a little stolid as Antony but then the part calls for it, to an extent. I liked Dalal Badr as Charmian very much; she conveyed the essence of a minor character whose name, after all, starts with “charm.”  Christopher Morris’s Enobarbus impressed me less: I didn’t like some of his line readings (especially the “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale/Her infinite variety” speech, and he came across as more of a hail-fellow-well-met than I’m used to seeing. He’s a hard drinker, sure, but I see him more as the ballast that keeps Antony from flying off into space—at least sometimes.

The other outdoor Shakespeare I’ve seen this summer was The Comedy of Errors in High Park, our nearest counterpart to Central Park—and the show was like New York’s Shakespeare in the Park too, except thankfully one doesn’t have to wait all day in line for tickets. It was fun, but not too much fun (you really have to fuck up to fail to get a few chuckles out of The Comedy of Errors but you have to be really brilliant to mine all the laughs that are there). In a bizarre casting choice, one of the Antipholus twins was white and one was black. That’s a brilliant way to keep the audience from forgetting which twin was which, but it doesn’t work dramatically even when it’s revealed that the parents are also one of each color. All in all, nothing wrong with it, but seeing these two productions brings home t me how much, with Shakespeare, less is more.

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