PROVO — Antony and Cleopatra, as penned by William Shakespeare, stands as one of his lesser-performed tragedies of star-crossed lovers. As Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra distracts one of the triumvirs of Rome, Antony, from his duties. The two bask in their love, a seemingly endless parade of drunken revelries.
However, without Antony present, Rome’s political state begins to suffer, prompting resentment from his wife and the people. His wife dies, but Antony still returns to Rome to resume his stately duties. There, he and Octavius Caesar (another triumvir) decide that Antony marrying Caesar’s sister will fix their shaky alliance. Antony does so, though Antony does not like his new wife as much as he does Cleopatra. However, he quickly returns to Cleopatra’s side and resumes the former habits of partying. Another triumvir, Pompey, intercepts along the way and invites both Caesar and Antony on his vessel, where they party and negotiate over a forthcoming war.
Meanwhile, word gets back to Antony’s wife about Cleopatra. She gets upset. Cleopatra hears about Antony’s wife. She gets upset. Antony returns to Egypt, where he falls back in with Cleopatra. She lends her ships to Antony where they meet in a sea battle against Caesar, who ultimately wins. Antony decides to ask Caesar for certain terms in surrender, though Caesar declines, deciding that Cleopatra must exile Antony from Egypt or murder him. Antony tries to defeat Caesar in hand-to-hand combat, and the battle continues over a series of days, with loyalties switching and lovers falling in and out.
One of my favorite things about Grassroots Shakespeare is their ability to take a script, and cut it into an easily understood narrative. Shakespeare’s plays can be quite complex, filled with intricate subplots and witticisms that only make sense if the reference is previously known. There’s a ton of history and allusion behind Antony and Cleopatra that can make it a very difficult story to follow, but the cast did a great job of delineating the story and making it easy to understand. There’s a lot of nuance and shifting alliances and back and forth between Rome and Egypt that can make the story a difficult one to follow. Coloring in costumes allowed for the audience to understand shifting alliances, and this particular cutting made a confusing story comprehensible. The cutting also allowed for a progressive pace in performance: high energy from the very beginning to the end kept me engaged in the performance.
One particular fault with this performance was a failure to control the audience’s energy. The actors were successful at raising an excitement within the crowd and bringing them into the world of the play; however, once excited, the crowd became difficult to maintain. Antony and Cleopatra is traditionally a tragedy, but the level of participation seemed to keep it at a comedic level. Actors didn’t necessarily keep the mood of the performance appropriate, making it an entertaining performance, but one more tethered to a sense of the basics of the plot. Therefore, I failed to see the vulnerability behind the characters, and it was difficult to truly mourn their deaths. Indeed, as Cleopatra killed herself, the audience was in absolute laughter. It can be difficult to develop character in only forty hours of rehearsal. Still, the necessary gravitas and depth in characterization made it difficult to truly accept the magnitude of the story’s tragedy. I yearned for a moment where the mood turned from comedy to tragedy, and unfortunately, that moment never happened. As a comedy, however, Antony and Cleopatra was quite funny.
While the tone of the play gave me some question, there were some beautiful performances that merit distinction. I particularly appreciated McKenzie Steele Foster’s portrayal of Cleopatra. She’s a whirlwind of a character, often histrionic, but at other times powerful and commanding. Cleopatra can be a difficult to portray, but Foster navigated the switches between personality traits with ease. Cleopatra’s dramatics felt grounded in a more believable place, more theatrical perhaps, but still serving to her purpose. A command of her lines and stage meant that Cleopatra’s presence was utterly undeniable.
As Antony, Topher Rasmussen brought a very masculine energy to the role, which played well opposite Foster’s Cleopatra. Rasmussen’s grasp of the language afforded for ease in understanding the character. However, he seemed quite passive. Rather than an Antony that could take the world around him and make it his own, his Antony allowed things simply to happen to him, taking misfortune and shifting alliances in stride. Whether deliberate or not, the choice to be passive made it difficult to truly connect with him.
Jessica Jean Myer as Enobarbus brought a wonderful presence to her role, and every moment she was on stage was an absolute delight. I loved seeing Enobarbus’s allegiances change, and I found her choices very deliberate and satisfactory. Also delightful was Alaynah Woodhouse as Pompey. She masterfully played a male character and brought a strong sense of presence and firmness every time she was onstage. The undeniable swagger and charisma—almost that of a pirate rock star—made Woodhouse’s moments on stage gripping. Generally, cast cohesion brought a sense of unity to the play that I really appreciated. Everyone in the group worked together well and played the story well one with another.
Overall, I was not disappointed with this piece. It was a fun evening in a lovely location, and I ultimately enjoyed myself. Grassroots Shakespeare proved their ability to hype a crowd and maintain their attentions, though some of that control of energy slipped away towards the end. Storytelling remained a strong point of the company, gesticulation perfectly matched to the script and allowing for ease in translation of Shakespeare’s text. I wanted to see more from the actors, though it would certainly be difficult to fully embody a character with only 40 hours of rehearsal. Anyone looking for a fun treat, looking to introduce friends or family to Shakespeare would be well-suited to check out this performance.