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This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the September 20,

2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: `Antony and Cleopatra’

It’s very likely that, had she lived in the 20th

century,

Cleopatra would have featured in Andy Warhol’s fashionable coterie.

She was, to put it kindly, less well known for her deeds than for

being well known (in the biblical sense). In Shakespeare’s "Antony

and Cleopatra" she is the embodiment of physical love and desire

(even if we don’t see her "doing it" or even talking about

"doing it".) That there are no love scenes — save a kiss

— in this play about love, puts unusual demands on the two actors

who share title billing. He has the easier time of it being a liar

and constant from first to last; she is changeable and yet a charmer

from first to last.

How strange it is that the few stage Cleopatras I have seen failed

to harness the complex, compliant nature of the Egyptian queen? Three

years ago, the otherwise incomparable Vanessa Redgrave played her

at the Public Theater (in her London production) wearing 17th-century

bodice and pantaloons. With a cigarillo dangling from her mouth, she

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.

The New Jersey Shakespeare Festival in 1986 had Robin Leary as the

queen and a bevy of torsos from the inverted palm school of dance

turning on the heat beneath swaying papyrus leaves in an unwittingly

campy production.

What could have those actors and their directors have been thinking?

Could it be that they could only see Cleopatra as the most theatrical

character in history, rather than as the most enigmatic and opaque

of all Shakespeare’s heroines? This New Jersey Shakespeare Festival’s

Cleopatra, played by a reedy and exotic looking Tamara Tunie, whatever

her shortcomings in plumbing the depths of Cleopatra’s duplicitous

nature, looks the part and plays it with an uncertainty that

paradoxically

befits her portrayal of the immature, impetuous "serpent of the

old Nile."

Variously gowned in gold lame, plum velvet, and green

leatherette by designer Miranda Hoffman, the grandly coiffed Tunie

gives us occasional clues that Shakespeare’s Cleopatra is as much

an actress as she is a fickle and spoiled woman. There is a lightness

in Tunie’s performance that gives the tragedy a bracing grace. And

isn’t that close to what Shakespeare had in mind? The question is

what director Bonnie J. Monte and her designers had in mind.

Tunie’s far from great — but also far from inconsequential —

portrayal is enhanced by Hoffman’s creations. Yet the costumes Hoffman

provides — black pants, boots, and leather jackets — for the

weaponless Roman men is a fashion statement that does not serve the

play well. Despite the fact that the good-looking Robert Cuccioli

(Broadway’s "Jekyll and Hyde") is a little too soft and fleshy

for this Alphabet City biker look, he gives a decent enough account

of Shakespeare’s warm, yet volatile hero. How much more attractive

a hero he would have been in basic Roman and/or Egyptian attire.

There is an unfortunate lack of chemistry between this Antony and

Cleopatra. Yet there is no lack of range in Cuccioli’s acting,

especially

when it comes to demonstrating Antony’s gift of oratory, or his

quick-changing

moods from laughter to rage and from jealousy to pride. At best he

is natural and honest, and in marked contrast to the stilted

performances

of many supporting players. Exceptions in supporting roles are Abigail

Lopez as the bubbly Charian, Cleopatra’s hand maiden, and Grant

Goodman

as an arrogant Octavius. Land and sea power was well represented by

the virile performances of Brian Dowd as Lepidus, and Darren Page

as Pompey.

There is artistic integrity in set designer Harry Feiner’s entwined,

transparent columns and decorated arch suitable for climbing, and

the moody lighting by Steven Rosen. It remains for director Monte

to give Shakespeare’s episodic (42 scenes) and histrionic play its

dramatic integrity. She does.

Whatever you call this particular spin that Monte has put on the

Bard’s

languid chronicle, it seems to be on its own intractable, but also

interminable, axis. Given the unavoidable brilliance of the text and

some commendable, if not memorable acting, this is an "Antony

and Cleopatra" that connects us fleetingly with the great and

tragic characters of an age-old story.

— Simon Saltzman

Antony and Cleopatra, New Jersey Shakespeare Festival,

F.M. Kirby Theater, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, 973-408-5600. $26

to $38. Performances through September 30.


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