Compare the two expectant mothers in “Antony and Cleopatra.” Granted, it’s mean, but to understand why Antony so easily abandons his wife Octavia for Cleopatra, look how these two ladies handle incoming motherhood. As a pregnant Cleopatra, Laila Robins bounds around the stage, swooning only when it suits her and bellowing at the servants. Lisa Velten Smith’s Octavia, on the other hand, acts human, arching her back to rise from a chair and gingerly padding around on her swollen ankles. It’s always hard to watch Antony choose the heartless goddess over the faithful earthling, but, in the new production at the Duke, the choice seems despicable.
This is only the most notable thing that Antony (Marton Csokas, whose fault none of this is) screws up over the course of helmer Darko Tresnjak’s three-hour bardfest “Antony and Cleopatra,” which reimagines its titular characters, possibly accidentally, as bratty fortysomethings with a bad case of arrested development.
Antony can’t do anything right, whether it’s leading an army or killing himself, and ultimately we’re forced to ask why anyone bothered following this joker in the first place.
Cleopatra is a different story. Laila Robins is peckish for scenery from the word go,but her character is so immature in this production that she becomes another trivial man-eater with too much money and too many servants — the empress as cougar. Thus, she never really achieves any lofty heights from which to fall.
Tresnjak displays the two characters’ considerable sexual appetites under harsh light from the very first scene. Even when he’s speaking to someone else, Antony is frequently making out with or groping Cleopatra with an unselfconscious vigor that recalls teenagers on a subway platform.
It would be ruder than necessary to insinuate that Tresnjak doesn’t understand how irritating this makes Shakespeare’s immortal lovers. But if he gets it, what on earth is he doing? Partly, he’s commenting on the period in which he’s re-set the play — 1884, when imperial Britain was snatching up countries in East Africa.
If Antony is a Brit, and Cleopatra is seduced by him, and therefore complicit in her country’s subjugation, then perhaps they are bad people. But, fatally, they’re neither good people gone to seed nor eerily fascinating villains (two Shakespearean specialties). They’re just privileged jerks, of the everyday variety. We can hate them any old time.
Perversely, this makes the fey, uncomfortable Octavius Caesar (played remarkably by Jeffrey Carlson) into the most interesting and magnetic character on the stage. Caesar has a plan, and since Antony and Cleopatra are both too wrapped up in themselves (which is different from being wrapped up in each other), that plan succeeds.
Very young and supremely arrogant, Caesar takes on the role of a god with worrying ease. But since Antony and Cleopatra are busy elsewhere, his rise, already unstoppable, is unopposed.
It’s amazing how hard it is to break a Shakespeare play. Tresnjak’s production doesn’t add much to our understanding of this great tragedy, but once its words are out of the actors’ mouths, there’s no stopping them and the play rewrites itself to suit its setting and its newly annoying leads.
“The breaking of so great a thing should make a greater crack,” says a confounded Caesar of Antony’s inevitable death. In other productions, that epitaph smoothly revealed Caesar’s fears for himself and suggested his great-uncle’s tragedy, which Shakespeare had written less than 10 years earlier. Here, it sounds like a rebuke.