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 and Nicole Ari Parker are having fun with their roles and are 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 memories of them include the otherwise incomparable Vanessa Redgrave who played at the Public Theater in 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.
Before that, a production at the Shakespeare Theater 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 Cleopatra with a Haitian accent and French army officer Antony made whoopee on a Caribbean island during the Napoleonic era.
What could 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 surrealized pyramid. Its three tilting multi-hued walls as designed by Daniel Ostling are beautifully illumined by lighting designer Edward Pierce. But they remain fixed regardless of any change in location and as a result become tiresome to look at. The impressive (a new one it seems for every encounter) array of sheer and stylish haute couture designed for Cleo by Paul Tazewell is stunning and has a contemporary chic, but 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 — perhaps even the fashion mindset — was like to warrant this disparity in styles in the Eastern Mediterranean?
Given Parker’s limitations in plumbing the depths of Cleo’s duplicitous nature, she looks the part and plays it with a frenetic 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: Mann directed Parker (as Blanche) in “A Streetcar Named Desire” last season on Broadway.
The tall, good-looking, and very muscular Pritchett looks as if he spent most of his time away from pumping Cleo in the palace gym pumping iron. But 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 last season in “Fences.”
Best among the supporting cast were Michael Siberry as the shrewd but blind-sided Enobarbus, and the familiarly campy Everett Quinton. Famed for his years as artistic director of Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company, Quinton most recently had a personal triumph starring in “Drop Dead Perfect” off Broadway. He knows how to steal a scene from a queen armed only with his 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 performance 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 a variety of percussive instruments in the corner of the stage. Pruned by Mann from its original 42 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 and Cleopatra, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Through Sunday, October 5. $25 to $82.50. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.