By John Quinn
For theater to happen, one needs only two elements – an artist to communicate and an audience to comprehend. For drama one also needs a playwright to provide the means of communication. When the dramatist is William Shakespeare, other elements associated with theater are superfluous. As a professor of literature once told his classes, “We don’t go to the theater to see Shakespeare; we go to the theater to hear Shakespeare.”
A few local companies have taken a minimalist approach to the Shakespearian canon, but few have explored the extremes as boldly as Shakespeare in Detroit. Its current production, “Antony and Cleopatra,” demonstrates a company can play Shakespeare with only non-descript, recycled costumes, junk for props, no lighting, set or stage speak of. Even adequate heat isn’t necessary; as long as patrons dress warmly (boots are recommended). The lightly clad actors are on their own.
“Antony and Cleopatra” is staged in the warehouse of Recycle Here! at the corner of Holden and Lincoln near Detroit’s New Center. The “theater” is delineated by cargo vans drawn up in a semicircle; the back wall of the stage is a line of commercial dumpsters decked in brilliant murals, painted by the artists’ colony that calls this place home. While chairs and benches ring the playing area, the “stage,” merely a clear space on the concrete floor, is defined by moody lighting.
Ah, but as Shakespeare wrote elsewhere, “The play’s the thing!” “Antony and Cleopatra” is one of three works drawn from the biographical study “Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans Compared Together” by the Roman historian Plutarch. That work appeared in a 1759 English translation by Sir Thomas North and is considered one of the masterpieces of the Elizabethan Era. Everybody who was anybody had read it. Those who couldn’t read absorbed the stories second hand. Thus in writing “Coriolanus,” “Julius Caesar” and “Antony and Cleopatra,” Shakespeare pretty much stuck to Plutarch’s history. But that didn’t stop him from tackling this work in his inimitable style, beginning with telescoping 11 years of actual history into his traditional five act format.
“Antony and Cleopatra” takes up the Roman civil wars where “Julius Caesar” leaves off. Having successfully avenged the assassination of Caesar, the victors establish the Second Triumvirate; the Roman Republic will be administered by three leaders, each taking control of a specific region. Octavius, Caesar’s grand-nephew, governs the West from Rome; Marcus Lepidus is tossed the bone of Carthage and its surrounding territory. Mark Antony takes the eastern provinces and chooses Alexandria as his capital. That puts him in danger of being ensnared, as was Julius Caesar before him, by the entrancing Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra VII.
It’s bad enough that he’s diddling while his Roman provinces burn; he’s also ignoring that fact that “there can be only one.” Octavius wants total control. Plutarch’s history recounts the inevitable path leading to Sept. 2, 31 BCE, when the an outnumbered fleet fighting for Octavius took on Antony’s bigger ships so effectively that the Egyptian navy, commanded by Cleopatra, turned back to Alexandria without engaging in battle. The defeat heralded a decline that led to the suicide of the lovers. In world history, it also marked the end of Egyptian sovereignty, the death of the Roman Republic, and the rise of the Roman Empire.
In deconstructing Shakespeare’s play, director Kyle Grant successfully presents substance over style, even though the challenges are daunting.
While Shakespeare’s audience was familiar with the twists in the military and political plots, the 21st-century audience may only remember something about a snake. Thus, the story must be told clearly in a huge space, using barely adequate lighting and a minimum of costumes. Shakespeare’s big cast is represented by only 10 actors, assisted by two extras. It’s a case of, “you can’t tell the players without a program,” but the main plotline is well serviced.
That is largely due to the trio portraying the participants in a complex dance of death. Jonathan Davidson and Jennifer Cole play the doomed lovers; Zack Hendrickson is the determined Octavius. It is noteworthy that this production highlights the political struggle between Queen and Emperor-to-be. This allows Cole to play a broad gambit of emotion, from her school-girlish infatuation with Davidson’s love-sick Antony, to the steely defense of her independence from all-conquering Caesar. But here’s a reminder to artists thrown into gigantic performance spaces without amplification: Trained voices will carry in even the worst circumstances when pitched in a lower register.
‘Antony and Cleopatra’
Shakespeare in Detroit at Recycle Here in Detroit’s New Center, 1331 Holden St., Detroit. 3 hours, 5 minutes. $10. 7 p.m. March 21-22. http://www.Shakespeareindetroit.com