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Die like an Egyptian: Antony and Cleopatra

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With 42 scenes stretched across three continents, Antony and Cleopatra is easily the scenery-chewingest play that Shakespeare wrote, far eclipsing the runner-up, Coriolanus, with a paltry 29. Could that be why North Carolina Shakespeare Festival has never done either of these two plays up in High Point?

Shakespeare Carolina has beaten NCSF to the punch, bringing Antony and Cleopatra to Theatre Charlotte for two weekends. Yet this barebones production, directed by Chris O'Neill, shouldn't be viewed as ridiculously quixotic. In my travels, I've seen each of these Roman tragedies twice, including a Ralph Fiennes Coriolanus and an Alan Bates Antony. Rather than seeing all the scenery and scene changes as barriers, I've come to realize that the impossibility of simulating the full Shakespearean tapestry is a great equalizer. Every theater budget is guaranteed to fall short.

Like productions I've seen at The Globe in London, Shakespeare Carolina's Antony is very much a radio play -- plus live actors, costumes, and a generic unit set. Light cues and furniture shifts serve as our transportation.

On the other hand, casts of experienced Shakespeare professionals, down to the smallest bit part, are a mighty de-equalizer. Don't expect the equals of Royal Shakespeare Company or D.C.'s Shakespeare Theatre Company on Queens Road. But on an individual level, be prepared for one huge surprise.

Iesha Hoffman is the best Cleopatra that I've seen -- better than Suzanne Bertish in D.C. last year or Frances de la Tour, opposite Bates, in 1999. Hoffman is a more youthful Cleopatra than these grandes dames. What she lacks in hauteur and majesty as the queen, she more than compensates for by bringing us the capriciousness of the woman and the vulnerability of the lover. Both the comedy and the pathos are keener as a result.

Neither Bertish nor de la Tour moved me a jot when reacting to Antony's suicide. They spoke as if delivering royal decrees where Hoffman speaks from the heart. Huge difference. Extra points for handling a real snake in the denouement.

As Marc Antony, we can also give Henry Cabaniss the advantage of youth versus Bates, but Cabaniss often had tenuous control of his lines on opening night and, though he towers physically over Hoffman, less regality and command. O'Neill does seem to have kicked his hero in the pants for the Act 5 climax. From the time he hears of Cleo's deceptive pre-suicide to the moment he dies in her arms, Cabaniss is gold.

The rest of the people onstage, whether executing big roles or small, present a thrilling roller-coaster of quality -- extreme highs and lows from instant to instant as they interact. Among the triumvirs who vie with Antony for rulership of the Roman Empire, Sean Foley is steely and solid as Octavian while David Loehr is discordantly weird as Lepidus. Among the treacherous pirates, Tom Ollis seethes nicely with menace as Menas while Jimmy Cartee boils over with psychosis as Pompey.

Cleopatra's handmaidens are also a mixed blessing with Darcy Golka as Charmian and Katehleen Taylor as Iras serving well -- perhaps waiting on Maggie Monahan to take over the role of Alexas and make her less of a Tori Spelling caricature.

As Enobarbus, Antony's right-hand man, Brian Willard ably delivers the long glowing description of Cleopatra, but as a warrior -- or even as a hearty carouser -- Willard doesn't quite convince. Randall Chou is quite satisfactory as Agrippa, and Joe Falocco brings welcome flair to the Soothsayer. Hey, his mojo worked in Julius Caesar, so why not give him an encore?

Unless you're trying to monitor the ups and downs of the triumvirs, Falocco's adaptation of the script works quite well. So does O'Neill's direction, aside from the weird 90210 twist. Dealing with Shakespeare's battle scenes can be tricky, and O'Neill leans too hard on radio play simplicity, condensing these already brief scenes to the verge of absurdity. A little more action and sound design would dispel the unintended comedy.

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