It’s Only Life and Death: SIR’s Antony and Cleopatra
Reviewed by Michelle Palansky
Antony and Cleopatra, by William Shakespeare, at the Trappist Monastery grounds, through June 27, 2015
Like a babe born new unto the world, I came to Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra with a clean slate. Never studied it in school, never saw it performed on stage or on screen. I never even watched Rome the TV series.
So I did my homework. I read the play, and I reviewed the criticism, and I got a little worried for Shakespeare in the Ruins (SIR).
A & C is an enormous play by any measure. Geographically, it spans the known world in ancient Roman times. Structurally daunting, there are five acts, with the final two containing a dizzying 28 separate scenes as the action shuttles back and forth between Rome and Egypt. Politically, the stakes could not be higher. By the end of the play, Caesar and Antony are fighting for dominion of their realm.
But SIR is known for making Shakespeare enjoyable and accessible, and with Antony and Cleopatra they rise to the considerable challenges. Sarah Kitz’s pacing of her production is practically perfect. The transitions are almost seamless as the audience moves from one location to another, and that is no mean feat when shifting an entire audience, clutching chairs and handbags and blankets, around the Trappist monastery grounds.
Most impressive is the way that Kitz plugs into our national preoccupations as she frames her version of Antony and Cleopatra within the context of a pre-Confederation Canada. The Romans become fur traders, the Egyptians become Anishnabe, and the otherness that is a crucial theme of the play suddenly hits extraordinarily close to home. The framing works. It really works. And not in the, “hey wouldn’t it be fun if we set Hamlet in the Roaring Twenties,” kind of works, but in the way that allows a contemporary audience to explore the themes of occupation and betrayal in a modern, pertinent context.
Kitz’s blocking runs the gamut in this production. The way that she condenses and focuses the sea battle and makes it fun, yes! fun! is glorious, but Cleopatra’s death scene, inexcusably played on the ground, is impossible for anyone but the front row to witness, and the audience participation finale is well intentioned but disorganized and anticlimactic.
The cast size is truly tiny for the number of roles they need to play but they are a strong and versatile group, and costume director Brenda McLean does a stand-out job of helping the audience differentiate between lightning fast character quick-changes.
Of particular note is Alicia Johnston as (among many other characters) Antony’s second wife Octavia and John Bryans as Caesar. Johnston brings a palpable sense of pathos to her depiction of the much misused sister of Caesar. It would be easy to dismiss such a poor, wretched character but Johnston’s portrayal demands acknowledgment, as Caesar and Antony play her as a political pawn. John Bryans brings a feather light touch to his Caesar—the man who will be emperor of all Rome. He is aristocratic in bearing, commanding in tone, scheming but not stomping. Although not a terribly sympathetic character, Bryans helps the audience see how such a man could have both masterfully taken control over an empire and ushered in an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity for the region.
The tableaux work of Cleopatra’s handmaidens, Marsha Wright and Kelsey Wavey, is beautiful to behold. Watch for the silent, small ways they comfort and console each other as terrible tragedies unfold around them.
There are moments of bawdy, riotous fun played with deft timing and skill by Michelle Boulet and Toby Hughes. Andrew Cecon, as Antony’s right hand man Enobarbus, brings dignity and devotion.
Antony and Cleopatra are the most realistic characters and the most difficult to believably portray to an audience. Like real flesh and blood, they are mutable, changeable, irreconcilable from one minute to the next in what they say and think and do. Although completely plausible in real life, on stage this type of vacillation can seem too random and chaotic. Kevin Klassen, as Antony,manages to make the tempestuousness of Antony seem plausible, possible. PJ Prudat captures Cleopatra’s petulance and histrionics but lacks a certain weightiness and presence that the character demands.
Everyone knows that Antony and Cleopatra culminates with the double suicides of the titular characters. What you may not know is how strangely life affirming this ending can be. The two lovers commit suicide with the belief that they will reunite in the afterlife and find resurrection and immortality. In Kitz’s framing, she extends this hope to the possibility of resurrection and renewal for the Anishnabe people.
Contradictory and beautiful and strange—this really is a very odd play. I am so grateful for SIR’s introduction.
Public performances of SIR’s Antony and Cleopatra run to June 27, 2015, at the Trappist Monastery grounds in St. Norbert, MB. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the PTE box office at (204) 942-5483.