By Bridgette M. Redman
It turns out that Pigeon Creek Shakespeare can do passion and lust as well as they do comedy.
Under the direction of Katherine Mayberry, "Antony and Cleopatra" tells a story of two lovers so inflamed with desire for one another that they'd sacrifice their great empires, honor and reputation. Whereas six lives are lost to the doomed love affair of Romeo and Juliet, entire armies fall so that a great Roman general and a charismatic Egyptian queen can, in the latter stages of their life, share their bodies and their hearts.
Central to the telling of this story are the actors playing the title roles. Heather Hartnett bewitches as the queen, carrying herself with royalty even when giddy with schoolgirl-like patter. She entwines herself beautifully with her two handmaids, Claire Mahave as Charmain and Bridget McCarthy as Iras, and their attendant Alexas, played by Mychael Overton. Through their skillful performances, they project an Egypt that is decadent and hedonistic, in strong contrast to the Victorian, militaristic Rome. Hartnett creates a queen that can bring down empires with her kiss and one can't imagine how any man could leave her side.
While Hartnett seduces early in the play she captivates at the end of the show as she is faced with tragic loss and must determine the manner of her yielding. Hers has been a free spirit and she is, at the end, filled with a courage and dignity that will not allow herself to be caged or her luster dulled.
It is in this strength that the audience can mourn the ensnarement of Paul Riopelle's Marc Antony. Riopelle's tour-de-force performance gives us an Antony worthy of grieving over. That his soldiers would die for him and his fellow Romans love him is apparent. Riopelle shows the noble and multilayered character of Antony in all of the choices that he makes: lustful with Cleopatra, insouciant before Caesar, a man among men on the battlefield, open and frank with his friends, animated in celebration, passionate in his anger and broken in his despair.
It is because he can be all these things that it is heartbreaking to watch as he trades his valor for a kiss, his honor for a bed. And yet, because Hartnett is so alluring, it is difficult to blame Antony for failing to see that love has clouded his vision and leads him into one tragic choice after another.
Others in the cast give warning of dangers of this relationship. Scott Lange's Enobarbus watches his commander revel, drink and shun Caesar's messengers. His face shows his concern over this neglect of duty and his ultimate choice is heartbreaking.
Chaz Russell Bratton and Riopelle have one of the stronger moments in the play. Bratton plays Eros, Antony's squire and a freed slave. The scene where Antony commands his servant to slay him is powerful and breath-taking, played well by the actors and perfectly staged by Mayberry. It is the moment that hearkens the tragic ending that is to come, and from that moment, there is no room for levity or even hope.
Owen McIntee and Matt Fowler made up the other members of the triumvirate that ruled Rome as Caesar and Lepidus respectively. Fowler is an eager youth who shows us why his character was lost in the memory of history when caught between two great ones. McIntee's Caesar was everything that Riopelle's Antony is not. Their movements, vocal choices and expressions were opposites in all but quality. McIntee was a strict militaristic emperor, keeping a firm hand on Rome. His spine stayed always straight, bowed only by too much wine. He was unflagging in his commitment to duty, even while lacking the honor and charm of the elder statesman, Antony.
Rosalind Srb's costuming was clever in that it not only set the Victorian period, but it clearly identified the different factions of Romans, something that had the potential to be confusing, especially with the great amount of cast doubling. The costumes did what all the best costuming does – help further the story by communicating character and theme.
The Pigeon Creek ensemble creates a compelling "Antony and Cleopatra," one where the politics of the day are dictated by matters of the heart. In their hands, the play is a love story that builds with such ardency and passion that the conclusion becomes inevitable.
'Antony & Cleopatra'
Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company at Dog Story Theatre, 7 Jefferson Ave. SE, Grand Rapids. Thursday-Sunday through Aug. 19. $12. http://www.DogStoryTheater.com