Antony and Cleopatra – Quick, Get the Asp!

Culture Watch
tags: theater reviews, Antony and Cleopatra

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

Julius Caesar had a fling with Cleopatra and several years later was assassinated. Marc Antony had an affair with her and then killed himself. Cleopatra was tough on men.

You can see why in William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, that opened last week at the McCarter Theater, in Princeton, N.J. It is an epic story of civil war, Emperors, army and naval battles, plus one torrid romance. The problem with this production of Antony and Cleopatra, though, is that it lumbers into old Alexandria, Egypt, and just about sinks in the harbor.

The play, a long and tedious two and a half hours, is one of Shakespeare’s weakest. He has two world famous characters but does not breathe life into them. He has sensational settings in Rome, Egypt and the Mediterranean sea, but does little with them. Worst of all, he has lots of minor characters and he does nothing more than have them talk, and talk and talk.

Shakespeare made a pretty complex story of war and political intrigue relatively simple. Caesar is dead and his heir, Octavius Caesar, has ruled the Roman Empire in a triumvirate with Antony and Lepidus. They argued and Antony travels to Egypt, where he falls in love with Cleopatra. He goes back to Rome to patch up the triumvirate, following his third Roman wife’s death. Anthony then marries wife number four. another Roman woman, Octavia, the sister of Octavius (you need a scorecard). This angers Cleopatra, who is insanely jealous of Antony’s new bride. The Roman army and navy come after him and he joins forces with Cleopatra in an effort to crush them. In the middle of all this, Antony and Cleopatra fall helmets over heels in love with each other and pledge eternal love and fealty until the end of time.

Director Emily Mann has done a decent job of staging the play, but she has to work with an actor and actress unsuited the roles of Antony and Queen Cleopatra. She also sets the play on a horrid single set with huge white gloomy walls that looks very much like the Super Maximum penitentiary in Colorado. Between scenes, there are huge explosions or bells or earthquakes, or something, and that keeps everybody on edge.

As Cleopatra, a schemer if there ever was one, Nicole Ari Parker seems more like one of the Real Housewives of New Jersey than Egypt’s sultry and memorable Queen. She prattles about, wraps her arms around her man, bosses her servants and shouts at people. Esau Pritchett, as Antony, is a huge man with a commanding presence on stage, but he does nothing but bellow at people. He rages at everybody. How could any woman ever fall for this guy? If you find him on, run away.

You do learn a lot of history from the play, and from the McCarter’s usual, meticulous programming, too. The play’s program carries a story on the history of the Mediterranean and the Romans and Egyptians in the era of Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and a good synopsis of the plot.

Shakespeare, a great political write, spins all of the Roman chicanery into the story, sets character against character and, in the end, shows the Egyptian army and Navy betraying Antony and Cleo.

The show is sluggish, though. It picks up a little bit in the second half, but not much. Director Mann does her best with the unwieldy play. The stars are miscast, but others in the cast do well. These include Tobias Segal as Octavius Caesar, Warner Miller as an aide and Zainab Jah as Charmian. Director Mann did trim out some scenes to streamline the love story, but it does not matter much.

Everybody knows that Cleopatra kills herself by letting a poisonous asp bite her breast at the end of the story. About twenty minutes before the end, a slow finale if there ever was one, you sit in your seat and whisper to yourself, “quick, get the asp already!”

Oh well, who can criticize the gorgeous Cleopatra? They have made movies, documentaries and television shows about her. There have been plays, histories, short stories. She was a living legend, the Kim Kardashian of her day.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the McCarter Theater Company. Sets: Daniel Ostling, Costumes: Paul Tazewell, Lighting: Edward Pierce, Sound: Mark Bennett, Fight Director: j. Alien Suddeth. The play is directed by Emily Mann. Runs through October 5.

comments powered by Disqus