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Antony and Cleopatra

John Douglas Thompson and Kate Mulgrew give disappointing performances in the title roles of Tina Landau's visually striking take on Shakespeare's tragedy. logo
John Douglas Thompson and Kate Mulgrew
in Antony and Cleopatra
(© T Charles Erickson)
Tina Landau's slick, semi-modernized take on Shakespeare's tragedy, Antony and Cleopatra, at the newly restored Hartford Stage, certainly doesn't stint on spectacle. Visually, the show is a knockout, thanks in large part to Blythe R.D. Quinlan's spacious, two-tiered minimalist set, lit by banks of audience-blinding klieg lights and transsected by a wading pool. Sadly, what transpires onstage never quite lives up to the implied grandeur.

One might expect more from Kate Mulgrew and John Douglas Thompson as two of the greatest lovers of all time. But the greatest love evident onstage is the one between Mulgrew and the sound of her own voice -- the calculated effects she can achieve with it, from throaty laughter to witchy imprecations. Moreover, her writhing limbs are usually splayed, as if her nether regions needed cooling off; at one point, she's carried in on a palanquin while engaging in an act of self-gratification.

Mulgrew's interpretation is no doubt the result of careful study, but it leaves little room for authentic emotion. True, Cleopatra is herself self-serving and manipulative, and perhaps it's tricky to distinguish between actor and role, but some of the queen's legendary charm needs to come through as well. We ought to be devastated by the denouement, not praying for the asp to get on with it.

Thompson, who so deftly made the role of Richard III his own at Shakespeare & Company just weeks ago, initially seems adrift here; he appears far too preoccupied savoring the attention of the Egyptian queen. Not until late in the play, while in the throes of a stomping tantrum, does he fully occupy the role of the bellicose Roman general.

Meanwhile, as this ill-fated romance develops, power-mongers and messengers come and go and the new Caesar (Scott Parkinson, a nice blend of weasely authority) tries to keep Antony in line. It's battle, party, battle, party, and so on.

If Mulgrew and Thompson disappoint, at least there are plenty of creditable performances to compensate: Alexander Cendese as Pompey (got up by costumer Anita Yavish in Road Warrior gear that stands in stark contrast to the sleek white suits favored by the Romans); LeRoy McClain as his scheming cohort Menas, a practical tactician; and Keith Randolph Smith as Antony loyalist and de facto narrator Enobarbus.

Perhaps best of all is Tony Yazbeck as Cleopatra's singing, dancing aide, Alexas. In fact, Yazbeck stirs more interest with one brief mournful song and, later, a fauve dance than the lovers achieve in their three hours' worth of world-shattering vicissitudes.

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