Saturday, April 5, 2008

Unbalanced Couple

Theater review - off-Broadway
Antony and Cleopatra
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Darko Tresnjak
Starring Laila Robins, Marton Csokas

Performances March 22-May 2, 2008
Theatre for a New Audience
The Duke on 42nd Street
229 West 42nd Street

Laila Robins and
Marton Csokas
(photo: Gerry Goodstein)
It takes a special actress to make believable the complications and contradictions of one of Shakespeare’s most fascinating heroines. The strength of Darko Tresnjak’s satisfying if flawed staging of Antony and Cleopatra is the presence of Laila Robins, who splendidly embodies all of the feminine wiles that prompted the Roman commander to embark on his ruinous liaison with her.

Opposite Robins’ alluring Cleopatra is the Antony of Marton Csokas, a New Zealand actor whom some may recognize from The Lord of the Rings. Although physically right for the role -- he walks with the necessary self-confident swagger -- Csokas seems less at ease with Shakespeare’s poetry, adopting a singsong style of pronunciation that makes this Antony more an ineffectual than imposingly tragic figure. Only late in the play, particularly in his whispering of Antony’s final lines while bleeding to death in his beloved’s arms, does Csokas approach Robins’ magnificence.

Tresnjak directs a fast-moving, straightforward production of a play that’s always a massive undertaking, even by Shakespearean standards; there are 42 separate scenes set in Italy, Egypt, Greece, and Syria. Here, large sections of the text have been cut and the director has moved the action to the year 1884, pointlessly bringing British colonization into the mix. But these unfortunate decisions are not fatal.

Tresnjak moves his large cast gracefully on the Duke Theater’s two-tiered but relatively small playing space without ever making it appear cramped. Still, there are some glaring staging errors. When Antony returns to Cleopatra suffering from a self-inflicted wound, he is lowered from a harness to the queen’s monument, a moment of supreme absurdity in an otherwise sober situation. Even more problematic is the tiled pool at the front of the stage, in which the couple splashes around at the beginning and Antony later plays with a model ship. Most often, the pool just gets in the way, and the actors must leap over it.

Otherwise, Alexander Dodge’s set design imaginatively uses sliding tropical blue panels to encompass much of the action, giving the welcome illusion of greater depth to the stage. A pivotal battle is briefly fought in silhouette behind the panels, an arresting image thanks to York Kennedy’s tasteful lighting effects.

In a large, mostly American cast, it’s heartening that many of the supporting roles are so ably filled. Among the standouts are John Douglas Thompson as Antony’s faithful soldier Enobarbus and Jeffrey Carlson as a youthful Octavius Caesar.

Yet it’s Robins, perfectly embodying Enobarbus’ sage words about the Queen of Egypt, who makes this Antony and Cleopatra a must-see: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.”

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