Surrounded by the woods of Saratoga’s Sanborn Park is a small amphitheater — half decorated with Egyptian symbols and statues, half with Roman masks and lettering. It is here that Silicon Valley Shakespeare (SVS), formerly called Shady Shakespeare, brings their modest, yet charming, production of “Antony and Cleopatra” to life. It is SVS’s first time tackling the tragedy in their sixteen years performing Shakespeare in the Bay Area, and their energetic, thoroughly entertaining performers certainly do it justice. While perhaps almost too lively for a tragedy, this take on “Antony and Cleopatra” succeeds in making Shakespeare feel accessible for any audience, as the cast and direction work seamlessly together to fully realize not only the basic plot, but the otherwise less easily grasped themes and motifs.
Shakespeare’s fatal romance follows the famous couple of Cleopatra, played by Stephanie Whigham, and Antony (who, due to unforeseen circumstances, was played on opening night by stand-in John Rutski, script in hand, reading glasses covering his Egyptian-style eyeliner). Antony is faced with an insurmountable dilemma — stay with his true love in Egypt, or return to his presently neglected duties as ruler over the Eastern Roman Empire.
Octavius Caesar (Alex Draa), a member of the Roman triumvirate that includes Antony, seizes the opportunity created by Antony’s indecision and wages war, aiming to take total control. A now-furious Antony engages Octavius in a series of battles with Cleopatra’s aid, but when her forces retreat, Antony lashes out at her for betraying his cause. The resulting chaos instigates the suicides of both Antony and Cleopatra, and the victorious Caesar, in an act of kindness, has the legendary pair buried side-by-side, where they will be immortalized as eternal lovers for centuries to come.
While it seems unfair to comment on Rutski’s performance as Antony — which was, admittedly, distracting — Whigham and Draa both deliver impressive and complex performances. Cleopatra, an underrated gem of intricacy in Shakespeare’s body of work, is not only melodramatic and fiery, but deeply loving and passionate, and Whigham does an excellent job extracting all of these emotionally volatile tendencies from the rightfully intimidating dialogue. The actress is a beacon of intrigue every time she bursts through the curtains stage right and injects the histrionic queen with just the right dosage of humor and wit necessary to maintain Cleopatra’s allure and generate sympathy for her inevitable plight. Draa, though perhaps in a less captivating role, is still able to cultivate a character, who, not quite a villain, not quite a hero, lives in the gray area between innocent ambition and dangerous greed.
Most notable, however, are Whigham’s and Draa’s uncommon abilities to capture the precise meaning of their dialogue; both possess a clear understanding of what they’re saying and are able to convey even the more elusive content — irony, subtext, humor — to their audience accurately and effectively. A production that could have easily been insufferably dry and confusing is made engaging and understandable, as the performers make it easy to appreciate the brilliant cleverness behind every Shakespearean quip.
Capturing meaning may be a hurdle every Shakespearean company must jump, but one of the most infamous challenges characteristic to “Antony and Cleopatra” is the coordination of constant scene shifts between Egypt and Rome. Director Larry Barrott handles this with suitable efficacy, which not only dramatically improves the show’s pacing by eliminating lengthy set transformations, but advances many of the work’s thematic conflicts. He uses a split stage and an easily-rotated backdrop to immediately switch the location, and relies on a minimalistic collection of furniture to complete the look. This allows for an almost-instant transition of scenery, while still maintaining the distinct personalities of the sensual Egypt and more subdued Rome. These two settings promote a subtle change in atmosphere that carries the integral tension of Antony’s plight, as his romantic devotion contradicts his political responsibilities.
This same subtlety can be found in Barrott’s clever costume alterations, intended to be representational of the allegiances of minor characters to either Egypt or Rome, which can otherwise be difficult to keep track of from scene to scene. While noticeably simple, Barrott attempts to make use of every resource available to him in order to further the mood he intends to evoke.
SVS’s “Antony and Cleopatra” is undoubtedly entertaining, but perhaps too much so, leading to unintended chuckles in some of the more somber moments, undermining the drama and detracting from the building tension. Some humor was born out of the awkwardness created by Rutski’s need for a script — particularly as he lay flat on his back, reciting Antony’s final words while holding the script high above his head — but unfortunately, the laughter did not end with these instances. There is of course obvious irony in Antony’s suicide, but the situation is far from comical, and yet, that is exactly how the company presents it. The play hardly feels like a tragedy at all, until it reaches the very final minutes of its conclusion with Cleopatra’s death, and even then the lighthearted air of the preceding scenes suck much of the gravitas from one of the play’s most critical moments. The interpretation, playful rather than weighty, feels like a betrayal of the original intent, and while the humor may be adequately executed, it does so at the expense of the drama’s essential intensity and promotes a sense of indifference towards the major characters’ fates.
The clearly more comedic talents of SVS are perhaps better suited to their next production, “Shakespeare in Hollywood,” which arrives July 31 in Sanborn Park. The pleasant community production of “Antony and Cleopatra” may lack the necessary seriousness, but the wonderful cast still brings all of the subtleties of this captivating story to life in a production that is enjoyable and relevant for anyone seeking a Shakespeare fix.
Contact Shannon O’Hara at shannonnohara ‘at’ mittymonarch.com.