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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
Antony & Cleopatra

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety. . . She makes hungry
Where most she satisfied, for vilest things
Become themselves in her

— Enobarbus
Antony and Cleopatra
Nicole Ari Parker and Esau Pritchett
Cleopatra was, to put it kindly, not especially well-known for her deeds, but rather for being simply well-known (in the biblical sense). Even if we don't see her "doing it" or even talking about "doing it," she is the embodiment of physical love and desire in Shakespeare's Antony & Cleopatra.

Funnily, there are no passionate love scenes, save a kiss and a little cuddling in this somewhat action-less play about love. As such, it puts unusual demands upon the two actors who share title billing.

Antony has the easier time of it being a liar and remarkably constant from first to last. But Cleo, an actress through and through who knows that he knows it, is changeable and yet a charmer from first to last.

What is evident from start to last is that Esau Pritchett or Nicole Ari Parker are having fun with their roles and a significant boost to the intruding languor that mars so much of this post-modernist production under the direction of Emily Mann.

How curious it is that so few of the Cleopatras I have seen have been able to harness the complex, compliant nature of the Egyptian queen as perceived by the Bard. My memory of them include the otherwise incomparable Vanessa Redgrave who played at the Public Theatre in bodice and pantaloons who with a cigarillo dangling from her mouth blew smoke rings around her fellow players in a weird production that had the Roman soldiers toting Tommy-guns in a big brother-ized Alexandria.

Before that, a production at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey had the queen and a chorus of undulating handmaidens from the inverted palm school of dance turning on the heat beneath swaying papyrus leaves in a somewhat campy production. Only last year, again at the Public, an entrancing, bubbly Cleopatra with a Haitian accent and French army officer Antony made whoopee on a Caribbean Island during the Napoleonic era.

What could have those actors and their directors have been thinking? Could it be that they could only see Cleo as the most theatrical character in history rather than as the most enigmatic and opaque of all Shakespeare's heroines?

But here we go again . . . transported this time to a galaxy far away to find the lovers ranting and writhing in what looks like the interior of a surreal-ized pyramid. Its three tilting multi-hued walls as designed by Daniel OstTling are beautifully illumined by lighting designer Edward Pierce. The impressive (a new one it seems for every encounter) array of sheer and stylish haute couture designed for Cleo by Paul Tazewell are stunning, the heavy black leather-wear/uniforms for the men bring back memories of Star Wars and Star Trek. But they make you ask what the weather have been like to warrant this disparity in styles in the Easter Mediterranean?

Given Parker's limitations in plumbing the depths of Cleo's duplicitous nature, she looks the part and plays it with an uncertainly that paradoxically befits the immature, impetuous "serpent of the Nile." I suspect that rehearsals have played havoc with her voice, as she sounded raspy on opening night and much of her speech was incomprehensible.

However prone to grand gesticulation, Parker plays nicely with the humor behind the spoiled and fickle Cleo's agenda. Isn't that close to what Shakespeare possibly had in mind? This is a reunion of sorts for Mann and Parker whom she directed as Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire last season on Broadway.

Despite the fact that the tall, good-looking and very muscular Pritchett looks as if he spent most of his time away from Cleo in the palace gym pumping iron, he has a big booming voice and gives an honorable performance as the warm hearted and yet emotionally volatile hero. There is no lack of range in his acting, especially when it comes to demonstrating Antony's gift of oratory, or in his quick changing moods. At best he is natural and honest and often in marked contrast to the performances of many of the lesser supporting players. McCarter audiences will remember Pritchett for his terrific McCarter debut performance last season in Fences .

Standout cast members were Michael Siberry as the shrewd, but blind-sided Enobarbus, and the familiarly campy Everett Quinton who knows how to steal a scene from a queen whilst armed only with a glittery designer handbag in tow as the court's obligatory eunuch. Tobias Segal applied an unctuous facade to hard-nosed Octavius Caesar and Zainab Jah was bubbly as Cleopatra's devoted hand maiden. Land and sea power was also well represented by the virile performances of Thom Sesma as Lepidus.

The best part of the production was the vibrant, exciting percussion score that provided musical segues between the scenes as played by Mark Katsaounis on variety of percussive instruments off in the corner of the stage. Prunnd by Mann from its original forty-two scenes (let's guess about four hours), the play at two-and-a-half hours still takes its time to finally wind up with the expected "asp"-you-like-it.

Whatever you call this particular spin that Mann has put on the languid story that the Bard so ardently chronicled, it connects us fleetingly with the great and tragic characters of an age-old story. And if my earlier remark about any lack of action may concern you, be assured that the drummer is not going to let you doze for any length of time.

Antony & Cleopatra by William Shakespeare
Directed by Emily Mann

Cast: Nicole Ari Parker (Cleopatra), Esau Pritchett (Antony), Phillipe Bowgen (Agrippa/Soldier), Michael Siberry (Enobarbus),Zainab Jah (Charmian) Everett Quinton (Mardian/Clown), Keith Eric Chappelle (Soothsayer/Menas/Soldier/Diomedes), Mairin Lee (Iras/Octavia), Tobias Segal (Octavius Caesar), Thom Sesma (Lepidus/Scarus/Soldier/Proculeis), Warner Miller (Eros/Soldier), Mark Katsaounis (Percussionist)
Set Design: Daniel Ostling
Costume Design: Paul Tazewell
Lighting Design: Edward Pierce
Original Music and Sound Design: Mark Bennett
Production Stage Manager: Cheryl Mintz
Director of Production: David York
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes including intermission
Berlind Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ
(609) 258-2787
Tickets: ($52.00)
Performances: Tues to Thurs 7:30 pm; Fri 8 pm; Sat 3 pm and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm and 7:30 pm.
From 09/05/14 Opened 09/12/14 Ends 10/05/14
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 09/12/14
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