Dallas — William Shakespeare’s tawdry tale about Mark Antony and Cleopatra has long been listed as a tragedy; however, this elusive drama filled with haunting poetry, political intrigue, comedy, and volumes of sex appeal between two very outsized personalities defies simple categorization. Much credit then belongs to René Moreno for preserving that delicious elusiveness and for emphasizing the language of the play in his apt direction of Shakespeare Dallas’ production of Antony and Cleopatra.
Sixteenth-century England, France and Italy were fascinated with the enigmatic Cleopatra and it was out of this milieu, and Sir Thomas North’s 1579 translation of Plutarch’s Lives of Noble Greciens and Romanes, that Shakespeare penned his take on the story. The 20th century saw an upsurge of interest in the play as Shakespeare wrote it with famous performances by John Gielgud and Dorothy Green, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, and Michael Redgrave and Peggy Ashcroft to name a few. Even Joseph Mankiewicz’s expensive and troubled 1963 film, Cleopatra, with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton tried to cash in on the legend.
However, curiosity for the story of the famous Roman and the tragic Queen of Egypt has mostly waned of late. One is fortunate to see one production of Antony and Cleopatra for every 10 of Romeo and Juliet, King Lear or Macbeth. This is partly because it is a challenging play that is talky and rife with expositions concerning offstage action, and it assumes an audience that is both familiar with and cares about Roman history and politics. ‘Tis a pity that we do not see more Antony and Cleopatras because, in the right hands, it provides its spectators with many rewards.
Moreno, who is also a Shakespeare Dallas Artistic Associate, handles the show perfectly. His easy and languorous pacing fit the play’s preponderance of verse language; you can really hear the poetry, and the Bard’s iambs march along with majesty in this production. It helps that Moreno’s cast is solid throughout, and not just top-heavy as sometimes can happen in SD offerings.
Daniel Duque-Estrada, in his SD debut, plays the titular Antony as a swaggering ruler who is sometimes “disposed of mirth” or struck sad by “Roman thoughts.” The handsome Estrada is an ardent leader torn between duty and love who provides the perfect foil for his enemies and lovers alike.
SD Executive and Artistic Director Raphael Parry is Enobarbus, Antony’s chief lieutenant who later defects and pays the price. Parry gets to deliver one of the most striking and beautiful passages in the play, Plutarch’s description of Cleopatra—embellished and perfected by Shakespeare—that begins “The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne / Burned on the water: …”
Christian Taylor, who was superb in SD’s 2014 Much Ado, plays Octavius Caesar as suitably precise and reserved and he brings an imperiousness quality to the role that signals the man who will eventually become Emperor Augustus Caesar.
Finally, it is Joanna Schellenberg’s Cleopatra that stands out amongst many standouts. She is at once charming and awe-inspiring, yet she is a mercurial regent prone to fits of jealousy and temper. Her rages and statuesque posturing are equally chilling. Schellenberg imbues the part with enough volatile allure to explain how irresistible she was to so many powerful men.
Completing Moreno’s vision of a modern setting along the Mediterranean with locations that shift between “sensual, imaginative Alexandrea and more pragmatic, austere Rome” is Donna Marquet’s set of monumental column structures spaced around in seamless symmetry with alternating levels of stairs all complementing the hillside.
In a nice touch that keeps all of the warring parties straight, Barbara Cox uses tan desert uniforms for Antony and his retinue, dark suits and red ties for Octavius and his Romans, and the rebel Pompey (Ivan Jasso) and company wear olive drab uniforms and desert robes. Marco Salinas’ sound design fits the music to the moods, and the levels and clarity are superb (Maddie McKee as sound engineer).
Call this historical, romantic, tragicomedic tragedy what you will, just don’t underestimate this production’s grandeur and power to move you.
» Antony and Cleopatra runs through Sept. 27 at Samuell-Grand Amphitheatre in Tenison Park; and then transfers to Addison Circle Park Oct. 3-12.