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From the time you first meet them, cavorting together on a royal-sized bed, the thing you notice about Derrick Lee Weeden’s Marc Antony and Miriam Laube’s Cleopatra is their physical disparity. He’s enormous — by turns the hulking “triple pillar of the [Roman] world” or a sprawling, plashy marshmallow of besotted sentimentality. She’s bird-like — lissome, preening and fantastically plumed, riding and pecking him like an egret on a bullock.
Nor is size the only mismatch about the eponymous duo at the heart of Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) artistic director Bill Rauch’s signature offering this year in Ashland’s outdoor Elizabethan Theatre. Mesmerizingly talented as Laube and Weeden are, individually, the chemistry between them never quite seems to spark enough stage lightning to super-charge a 42-scene romantic tragedy. Rather, the three-hour spectacle is sustained by the slick stage-craft of Rauch and his production team,
The two co-stars loudly protest their devotion; they goad, tease and titillate; they paint each others’ praises to the sky. Laube vamps around with her usual kittenish allure;Weeden snorts, pants and bellows. But, in their one-on-one interactions they seem oddly Platonic — not exactly sexless, but somehow oblique, like cave-prisoners in love with shadows.
Particularly the chimerical shadow of Fame, their own and each others’, Antony and Cleopatra have got to be the uhr Celebrity Couple, having each arrived, Trump-like, at a stage where, by now, they’re famous just for being famous. They inhabit a stratosphere of power and glamor so rarefied that they have only each other to pair with.
So there’s a brittleness about their mutual encomiums. When Cleopatra lauds him as “the demi-Atlas of this earth, the arm/And burgonet of men,” or Antony hails her as his “queen…whose every passion fully strives/To make itself, in thee, fair and admired,” there’s a note of nervous self-reassurance under the ostensible adulation. Who says I’m a has-been, they seem to be telling themselves, when I can still land myself such a matchless trophy mate?
Yet has-beens they are, after all. At 53 and 39, respectively, A & C rate as senior citizens by 1st century B.C. standards. Nor is it just a matter of actuarial age; history, too, has overtaken them. Gone are the days of the Roman Republic, when heroes were made by single mano a mano combat and oratorical eloquence (viz. Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen..”). Gone, too, the Ptolemaic grandeur that elevated Cleopatra to a living incarnation of the Egyptian goddess Isis.
The new world-straddling Roman Empire belongs to cold, strategic young “realists” like Antony’s arch-rival, the “scarce bearded” Octavius Caesar (Raffi Barsoumian). “If thou dost play with him at any game,” an Egyptian soothsayer warns Antony, “thou art sure to lose.” To which the old general has to concedes”the very dice obey him.” (Rauch chooses to portray this quite literally, punctuating the negotiating scenes among the Roman Triumvirs with the incongruous clatter of Liars’ Dice cups).
Caught between the two world-views is Antony’s lieutenant, Domitius Enobarbus, played by Jeffrey King in a stand-out performance. He’s realist enough to see the onrushing debacle, yet romantic enough to stand by his self-doomed commander; martial enough to earn kudos from even his foes, yet poet enough to best descant on Cleopatra’s “infinite variety.” And a bawdy roisterer to boot. Enobarbus acts as a kind of chorus, and King strikes just the right balance of engaged sanity — plain-spoken yet empathetic. His suicidal demise almost overshadows Antony’s in the play’s antepenultimate scenes.
But the dramatic climax belongs to Laube. Her mercurial mood-shifts — arguably the essence of Cleopatra’s character — may have seemed more strategic than genuine in the run-up to the tragic denouement. But in her final tomb scene, stripped of her regalia, her flunkies and her lover — looking her age, at last — she emerges queenlier than ever to thwart Caesar’s intended humiliation of her in his triumphal victory parade.
The Ashland audience sat momentarily stunned to silence before the customary standing ovation.