Theater Reviews

Brave Spirits in D.C. and Charlene V. Smith’s Antony and Cleopatra

Musa Gurnis (Washington University in St. Louis)

Brave Spirits’s 2016-2017 season continues in Washington, D.C. with John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore in repertory with Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher’s A King and No King (Mar. 30-Apr. 23). The company, under the artistic direction of Charlene V. Smith, stages Shakespeare’s plays alongside less frequently produced works of his contemporaries. Brave Spirits is an important voice among several scrappy, classical companies in D.C. with scholarly chops.

Brave Spirits Theatre. Antony and Cleopatra. Directed by Charlene V. Smith. Photo by Claire Kimball.

Last Fall’s production of Anthony and Cleopatra exemplifies the company’s affinity for female centered projects, and ability to create worlds on a shoestring budget. Staged in the round with entrances between bleachers, Smith, the play’s director, conjured a sense of openness and scale, even in the intimate space of the Lab at Convergence in Alexandria, VA. A graduate of the joint MLitt and MFA program run by the Mary Baldwin College and the American Shakespeare Center, Smith selectively adopts original practices to dynamic effect. Rather than attempting a literal reproduction, Smith modernized early modern techniques. Scenic designer Eric McMorris’ bare stage (warm, red, worn, Turkish carpets were the only constant feature), and minimal props, allowed a fluidity of dramatic action well suited to the play’s restless geographic movement. In one striking scene, Smith capitalized on the flexibility of the bare stage by having Anthony and Cleopatra carried by their followers, drawn toward each other by long cloth banners, to create the illusion of Anthony being drawn up into the high “monument” to die in Cleopatra’s arms. This effect lifted the emotionally heightened death scene out of the normal playing space and representational register. Having the lovers enacting their grand passions raised up by their followers, underscored the intimacy the couple share with their servants, and the degree to which the play elevates the famous pair above ordinary people. In keeping with the early modern practice of inserting popular songs into plays, the production added a catchy chant and drinking game to the scene on board Pompey’s galley. Costume designer Melissa Huggins mixed Roman and modern clothes. Cleopatra’s long, cinched, duster coatdress that opened over trousers highlighted the complex femininity of the woman who “wore the sword Phillipan.”

Antony and Cleopatra. Photo by Claire Kimball.

Supporting actors, often cast in multiple roles, offered distinctive characters. Darren Marquardt’s Countryman was both eerie and camp, capturing the tonal strangeness of “the joy of the worm.” Madeline Burrows gave an ominously implacable Soothsayer. Micaela Mannix credibly alternated between the oversexed Charmian and icy Octavia. Brendan McMahon played both Cleopatra’s lithe attendant Alexas, as well as Caesar in a white toga with the starched posture and cold self-interest of a prep school yuppie. Double casting these actors in Roman and Egyptian roles underscored the play’s seesawing between the military center of empire and the pleasure barge.

Hilary Kelly as Menas and John Stange as Enobarbus. Photo by Claire Kimball.

Joe Carlson as Antony. Photo by Claire Kimball.

Joe Carlson as Anthony carried his often shirtless body like a rocker with bleary bedroom eyes. John Stange, an engagingly open and responsive supporting actor, wore Enobarbus’s bluff masculinity lightly, with friendly humor: he gamely plays crocodile in the drinking scene. The easy rapport between the two men throughout the play, and the tearful, end-of-the-party farewell Anthony takes of his followers, establish him as a soldier who commands hearts as well as swords. The warmth, generosity, and emotionality of Carlson’s Anthony made a damning contrast to McMahon’s repressed, calculating Caesar. Anthony is in his element at Pompey’s feast and Caesar cannot hold his liquor.

Without question, the play belonged to Jessica Lefkow as Cleopatra. Lefkow is an accomplished classical actor whose mind always seems to be in motion, which makes her well equipped for the queen of “infinite variety.” Whereas less versatile actresses tend to play the character with a generalized fickleness, Lefkow moved fluidly through Cleopatra’s rapid changes of thought and feeling. Lefkow’s performance justified Anthony’s admiration for her, “Whom every thing becomes, to chide, to laugh, / To weep.” Enobarbus, too, wonders at her emotional expressivity: “Her passions are made of nothing but / The finest part of pure love: we cannot call her / Winds and waters, sighs and tears; They are greater / Storms and tempests.” Lefkow’s virtuosity made these lines pop. She gave the highly performative queen a rich inner life. Sometimes Lefkow would close her eyes and retreat into a sotto voce reverie, a privacy she allowed the audience to share. Sometimes she lay draped among her attendants as if they were cushions, once wrapping a set of their arms around her to imitate Anthony’s embrace. Using her servants as props and entertainment created both a languid, playful familiarity in the boudoir, and pointed up how much she took for granted that her life unfolded on a grander scale than those of ordinary people. Lefkow’s Cleopatra wore her greatness with the casual assurance with which French women wear scarves. At ease in her skin and free in movement, with pleasure in her voice and a slow, knowing smile, this Egyptian queen was clearly a woman with sexual history and expertise. Lefkow’s considerable powers of seduction had less to do with her striking bone structure than the force of her character: Elle avait du chien. Her chemistry with Carlson was strong. Sleepy and languid from bed she nuzzled and hung on him. Her ineffectual attempts to help him dress for battle crystallized the competing pulls of eroticism and duty on Anthony. Carlson’s adoration made a wonder even of Cleopatra’s slightest touch: in one particularly hot scene, he beat Caesar’s messenger for kissing Cleopatra’s hand while she looked on astonished and obviously attracted by his jealous rage; in a contrasting gesture, he rewarded a common soldier who fought bravely, by allowing him to kiss “the hand that kings / Have lipp’d and trembled kissing” in a special moment of basking, golden ceremony. Lefkow’s maturity as an artist allowed her to create a capacious Cleopatra, a woman so effortlessly regal that even her petty jealousies (as when she petulantly fished for the compliment that her messenger “hath seen some greatness” against which to unfavorably compare Octavia) made her formidable. Lefkow delivers lines such as her rejection of Caesar’s flatteries—”He words me, girls, he words me. That I should not / Be noble to myself”— with forceful intelligence. To play a woman with this much complexity is a feminist act.

Hilary Kelly as Iras, Jessica Lefkow as Cleopatra, and Micaela Mannix as Charmian. Photo by Claire Kimball.

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