James DeVita and Tracy Michelle Arnold in American Players Theatre's Antony and Cleopatra
When American Players Theatre, beloved for its open-air amphitheater, opened an intimate, indoor stage in 2009, company leadership gave several reasons for the new direction. It wasn't only about staging plays that would likely draw smaller crowds, but also about keeping core company staff creatively engaged and able to take risks.
You could say that the Spring Green theater's new adaptation of Shakespeare's Antony & Cleopatra (through Oct. 20) is one of those creative risks. Director Kate Buckley and actor James DeVita, who plays Mark Antony, have adapted Shakespeare's 1623 tragedy quite freely, trimming it down to seven characters and also adding anachronistic touches, from modern costuming (including guns and flak jackets) to the offstage whirr of a military helicopter.
APT has produced Antony & Cleopatra just one other time, in 2002. Even if you saw that production, which also starred Tracey Michelle Arnold as the Egyptian queen, the Buckley/DeVita adaptation is new. And as producing artistic director David Frank said in an interview this spring, "You have to extract themes rather than just condense it" when slimming down an epic.
So how well does APT succeed at this goal? While purists may not approve of designer Robert Morgan's mostly contemporary costuming, I thought the play's spare, modern look was one of its most appealing elements, helping convey this notion of an epic pared down to its essentials. Cleopatra's looks are simple, loose and flowing, from a bold red dress to an off-white strapless gown. Dagger-like hairpins securing her dark tresses subtly hint at acts of violence to come. Male characters such as Enobarbus (James Ridge), one of Antony's men, and Octavius Caesar (Christopher Sheard), Antony's main antagonist, wear simplified military uniforms and even tuxes.
Nathan Stuber's set design is minimalistic: a long, narrow platform on stage serves numerous purposes, as does a swath of white fabric (possibly a silk parachute) that hangs curtain-like at one side of the stage. Subtle washes of color (lighting design by Noele Stollmack) projected onto a scrim at the back of the stage resemble an abstract painting.
As for its plot, Antony & Cleopatra offers a mix of larger-than-life figures, doomed love and military intrigue. On this score, this production doesn't entirely succeed; DeVita and Arnold's chemistry needs more heat. (After all, we are told by Enobarbus of Cleopatra's unequaled charms: "Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale/Her infinite variety.")
Some supporting cast members turn in impressive performances, including Christopher Sheard as Octavius Caesar, the future first emperor of Rome. Sheard is coolly commanding and delivers Shakespeare's dialogue in a way that makes it more natural to modern ears. (In contrast, I sometimes found DeVita too rapid-fire for his own good, particularly near the play's beginning.)
While the military machinations and shifting alliances can be a touch confusing, Buckley and DeVita's adaptation -- APT's first-ever indoor Shakespeare -- offers a glimpse of how the company may approach bringing the Bard out of the woods and into the much different atmosphere of its 200-seat Touchstone Theatre.