It’s not just the casting of Shakespeare & Company’s plump, sixtysomething a.d. as queen of denial that sinks its production of “Antony and Cleopatra” like a bad barge. After all, many famous actresses of a certain age have tried their hand as a more mature Cleo — and other even more unlikely roles in the Bard’s canon — and some have brought new perspectives to the parts. But here, a miscast Cleopatra is just one of the production’s many problems — some underscoring recurring deficiencies at the popular tourist attraction in the Berkshires, now in its 30th year.
Many of Shakespeare & Co.’s Bard stagings (the theater also does non-Shakespearean works) have a similar feel to them: Costumes are seemingly assembled from the racks (here, the fashion is tie-dye mixed with leather and gilt); stock set pieces have a recycled look; and the extreme thrust stage certainly challenges helmers — but doesn’t necessarily have to defeat them. After all, it speaks to the kind of raw theater style in which Shakespeare’s work was originally presented and can be helpful in quick-changing locales.
That been-here/saw-that feeling is not such a distraction when the show is competently done. But when major elements of a production are off, as they are here, it raises larger issues.
Packer is a capable actress and, cast well, she should be an asset to any production. But here she’s not up to the requirements of this great role. Her charisma-free Cleopatra lacks a command not only of her royal bearing but of the character’s image as the era’s most dazzling celebrity. While Packer has energy and exuberance, her passion is all on the surface. She has a natural warmth where fire is needed (along with some devastating deep freezes) to make Cleopatra a fascinating regal force.
Nigel Gore has a better time of it as an Antony in decline. But he stumbles in some of the character’s difficult emotional pivots, showing little variation or depth in the long stretches of bombast and bravado (a trait shared by many of the testosterone-inflicted soldiers). But Gore’s sense of a mature man, helplessly aware that he’s being distracted in his duties and acting like a lovesick schoolboy, is truthful and touching; in these moments he grasps some of the work’s great poetry.
While some of the supporting players do well (Craig Baldwin’s Octavius, Ryan Winkle’s Eros, Molly Wright Stuart’s Octavia), most succumb to histrionic “Shakespearean” acting, are misguided or are just lost. (For Christianna Nelson’s vacant take on Cleopatra’s handmaid, think Paris Hilton — an image just reinforced by Arthur Oliver’s costumes.) The often-omitted battle scenes are well done thanks to Susan Dibbles’ evocative movement direction.
Direction by Michael Hammond, Packer’s heir apparent as Shakespeare & Co. a.d., is fluid, and the cross-cutting between Rome and Egypt is managed with dispatch. The exposition-heavy play is handled with relative clarity, but the political machinations and globe-trotting narrative should not be treated as the heart of the drama. The richness and complexities of the legendary title characters have transfixed auds through the ages, and it is here that this production comes up short.