The New Jersey Shakespeare Festival at midseason has mounted an ambitiously lean production of “Antony and Cleopatra,” Shakespeare’s sprawling historical tragedy. The production boasts a formidable Marc Antony in Robert Cuccioli, the original star of Broadway’s “Jekyll & Hyde,” but suffers from a less-than-commanding counterpart in Tamara Tunie’s Cleopatra.
Making his Bard debut as the Roman statesman and passionate soldier, Cuccioli is not the familiar weathered warrior but a youthful, virile, tattooed Antony. He gives a robust performance and has both an authoritative presence and an impressive command of the language. Cuccioli also captures Antony’s nobility and restless passion for the Queen of the Nile. The actor returns to musicals following this turn to play a Chicago gangster in the Paper Mill Playhouse production of “Victor/Victoria.”
Tunie is a sinewy and sensuous Cleopatra, but she doesn’t come to terms with the Queen’s complexities. She has a nice grasp of the language but fails to find the balance between teasing coquette and tigress, or reveal the tempestuous allure of this devious, intelligent ruler. The chemistry between the ill-fated lovers seldom reaches its hot-blooded potential.
Supporting perfs are uniformly acceptable, with Mark Elliot Wilson as the cynical and prophetic Enobarbus giving a credible account of Cleopatra’s barge and Grant Goodman as a boyish yet decisive Octavius Caesar. There are, however, some embarrassing and awkward cameos by slaves, messengers and attendants.
Cleopatra’s gowns are golden and gorgeous, in marked contrast to all the blandly costumed soldiers and statesmen who appear beefy and muscular in sleeveless T-shirts and jeans, riding boots and an occasional Nehru jacket. There is no shining armor on display, no swords, no togas — in effect, no Roman majesty. The production never achieves visual grandeur; it’s more like a tempest in a gymnasium.
While Bonnie J. Monte’s staging may lack epic sweep, she has marshaled her players with fluency and wisely omitted battle sequences, with the exception of a brief slow-motion shadow play.
A simple but artful set design of columns serves the oft-shifting Roman, Greek and Egyptian locales, but a network of ladders and scaffolding is seldom used and seems intrusive.
Next up on Festival boards is “The Merchant of Venice” (Oct. 24-Nov. 19), directed by Richard Corley, replacing the originally skedded “Othello.”