When In Colorado...stop by the Shakespeare Festival

By Dave Kopel

August 03, 2004, 8:36 a.m., National Review Online. More play reviews by Kopel.

Out here in the big square states in the heart of Red America, we have only two cultural activities: counting the days until the next Lee Greenwood concert, and picketing bookstores that sell dictionaries containing naughty words.

At least that's what some folks on the coasts seem to think. But Colorado is actually home to one of the oldest Shakespeare festivals in the United States. The Colorado Shakespeare Festival's new performance of Antony and Cleopatra is well worth your time, should you travel through Colorado between now and mid-August.

Most years, the CSF uses an outdoor theater and an indoor one, but this year, the indoor theater is being renovated. So all of this summer's plays are being performed at the outdoor Mary Rippon Theatre, which is built of pink sandstone. Behind and above the stage is a clear view of the beautiful Colorado nighttime sky, with Scorpio rising. The enchanting setting of Shakespeare under the stars can often complement the atmosphere in a play — as in last year's delightfully energetic production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

In 1975, the CSF became the first theater in the United States to complete the full canon of all 37 of Shakespeare's plays. Venues such as the CSF often feature actors who have been out of graduate school for less than decade.

Reading the production notes for Antony and Cleopatra might frighten away a potential ticket-buyer. Director Robert Beneditti frames A&C thus: "The old-line roll-up-your-sleeves politicians like Dick Daley and Harry Truman are being lost in the passing of political power to an elite of behind-the-scenes spiders spinning their international ideological webs." The Roman soldiers wear camouflage or neo-fascist costumes and carry M-16 rifles. (One almost expects to see a giant backdrop that reads, "BUSH LIED!!!")

Fortunately, the actual performance isn't so moralizing. Octavian is portrayed, accurately, as a sleazy little manipulator, and a physical coward. But he's not spinning any "international ideological web." His attempt to rule the world is, like Antony's, totally void of ideological content.

Benedetti's production simplifies the plot, particularly regarding the political intrigue of the triumvirate. As a result, the play runs only two and a half hours, including intermission. Unfortunately, the simplification means that what remains of the political struggles among the triumvirs (Antony, Octavian, and Pompey) has little dramatic power. Rather, the political scenes merely move the plot forward to set up the more personal scenes.

The CSF performance focuses instead on the personal relations between the characters. The most important, of course, is Antony and Cleopatra's tempestuous romance.

Kim Staunton as Cleopatra is beautiful, bold, loud, and utterly self-confident. She is, however, too over-the-top to impress me as regal or smart enough to master Egypt's incestuous politics. (The historical back story is that she married her brother, and then had him killed.) Fortunately, the plot catches up with Staunton's style in her final scenes, when she commits suicide and says farewell to Marc Antony, in order to avoid being captured by Octavian and paraded before the mob in Rome. The "worm" with which she takes her life is an objective correlative of the snakish Octavian, who is about to take over the world.

As Antony, Michael Kevin carries himself with the confidence borne of long experience. He is, however, obviously past his prime physically, just as his style of personal combat with the opponent's leader is passing away.

The night's best performance comes from Joel C. Morello as Antony's lieutenant Enobarbus. As the last honorable Roman, Enobarbus remains tragically loyal to Antony, even more loyal than Antony is to himself.

The pacing is energetic, and after intermission, the play moves forward briskly.

Performing Shakespeare in historically authentic costumes is not the style these days in American productions. Costume designer Polly Borsig's choices are all right for the men — who look like Mafiosi, modern soldiers, ZZ Top pirates, or professors. The female costumes, however, are jarring.

Octavian's sister Octavia, who weds Antony in a marriage of political convenience, dresses like a frumpy Laura Petrie from the Dick Van Dyke Show. Cleopatra's three attendants are an exotic flapper, a mannish lesbian bureaucrat from 1984, and a leopard-skin Viking dominatrix.

Antony & Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet (in a Victorian setting), and The Comedy of Errors (with the characters as 19th-century Creole pirates) will perform in repertory at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in Boulder though August 15.

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