Antony & Cleopatra may well be the most confounding of Shakespeare’s regularly staged works. The production currently playing through Aug. 4 at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival proves that point again and again across its nearly three-hour running time.
Even with the generous editing employed here, it can feel as if you’re watching a dozen different dramas smashed together. How should a director approach this multilayered, often maddening tragedy? There are options. She could highlight the catastrophic love affair at its center, or lean into the historical aspect. It’s a ripe candidate for the allegorical treatment, as its events can be made to fit almost any cultural moment.
Director Eleanor Holdridge wants to have her cake and eat it, too. This results in a maximalist interpretation, with every possible stylistic element on display. The setting limns periods, as Roman Tatarowicz’s expressionistic unit set becomes a backdrop for soap opera, military thriller, broad comedy, and exotic epic. These disparate elements never cohere into a fully realized reading of the play, and the uninitiated will likely find the proceedings difficult to follow.
Yet a more fatal flaw persists. This assumption almost entirely lacks any sense of grandeur — the one component that is most sorely needed. A tale of empires won and lost demands majesty, but Holdridge’s conception remains resolutely commonplace. The absence of opulence breeds down to the central duo.
Nondumiso Tembe looks every inch a queen in Sarah Cubbage’s sensational costumes, but wan line readings undercut her regal image. Oddly, Ilia Isorelýs Paulino, cast as Cleopatra’s serving woman Charmian, exudes the exact air of stately gravitas missing from Tembe’s characterization. One wishes they could switch roles.
If Tembe registers as a nonentity, she at least doesn’t embarrass herself. The same cannot be said for Neal Bledsoe, whose inept Antony boils down to a series of poses, shrieks and grunts. Whether leading his troops into battle or falling on his own sword in what should be an anguished death scene, Bledsoe constantly looks as though he’s modeling suits. To make matters worse, the pair fail to generate a drop of chemistry.
Among the remaining cast members, no two individuals appear to exist in the same universe. Liam Craig plays Enobarbus, conceived here as a gruff drunk, in a recognizably naturalistic manner, while Luigi Sottile’s Pompey is a study in gleefully menacing grandstanding. Justin Mark’s Octavius Caesar is a petulant boy-king; this is at least the third production I’ve seen to employ such a depiction, and I’m frankly bored with it.
Along with Paulino, festival stalwart Eleanor Handley stands out as a dignified Agrippa, making a meal of every line with her firm English accent. But when you leave Antony & Cleopatra praising Agrippa and Charmian, you know something’s amiss.