Sunday, May 8, 2011

Theatre review: "Antony and Cleopatra" from Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre. Sunday 8th May 2011

Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre offers a vigorous, imaginatively staged and capably articulated version of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Given that the play is widely considered difficult to render thoroughly and movingly, director James Christy and his sturdy cast have a big assignment. They get across all the surfaces convincingly, but Christy and title role performers Sam Tsoutsouvas and Helena Ruoti do not give their characters compelling heart and soul. On the other hand, James Sutorious and Leo Marks as other important characters Enobarbus and Octavius invest them with admirable dimension.

Unfortunately Shakespeare has written Cleopatra most like a spoiled, willful lover and mistress planting the seeds of comedy, weakening the potential for tragedy which lies more clearly within the more complex, vacillating Antony. The script does do well with Octavius, making him reasonable, tractable, having deeper feelings beneath his controlled exterior. Shakespeare thereby balanced well the opposing forces, making this truly interesting, showing that Antony and Cleopatra’s flaws help to bring them down.

But the play can be a challenge to audiences neither familiar with nor caring about this significant, volatile period of Roman history. This can look and feel like a well-developed documentary more than a tragedy, spending much time on the comings and goings across the Mediterranean by many characters while focusing on the whys and wherefores of the conflicts leading to the protagonists' deaths. Potential audiences, if interested in the background, might benefit from advance preparation. Plus PICT’s always informative and interesting program notes are worth reading.

Ruoti inherits the problem of making Cleopatra a strong-willed and sensual woman whom the once powerful Antony cannot help admiring and loving, yet Routi more emphasizes unqueenly petulance and pettiness. Meanwhile, looking glamorous in consistently beautiful, elegant attire, she does little more than frequently languish on pillows to suggest sexiness. Tsoutsouvas, on the other hand, comes across mostly as a big blustering baby, delivering lines with non-stop intensity and high volume, sometimes even bellowing, never looking heroic and never sadly pitiable. As Octavius, Leo Marks seems the best of the three, thoroughly suggesting the man’s interior workings, a good contrast to almost out-of-control Antony but the merit of Marks' performance may get overshadowed by appearing too contained. Enobarbus, a more marginal character in the play, more a commentator than a mover and shaker, but definitely more important in the real story, gets excellent definition by James Sutorius; he delivers his lines with a personality which makes him constantly interesting.

Director James Christy keeps all of the action vivid, colorful and convincing, while getting his actors to deliver speeches with integrity and meaning. No doubt his and PICT’ s choices of this cast make that possible, given so many local actors whose talents have been in constant development and exposure, making this kind of ensemble as close to a repertory company as we’ve ever come. They all do well, even though compromised by the unforgiving acoustics of the Charity Randall Theatre. They include such artists as Daina Michelle Griffith, Jarrod Di Giorgi, Daniel Krell, Mark D. Staley, and Shammen McCune. I do, however, question double-casting the easily recognizable Griffith as Cleopatra’s constant companion Iras as well as Antony’s new bride Octavia.

Christy or PICT’s choice of costuming doesn’t do the play justice, given its inconsistencies, equally suggesting something timeless and contemporary and period-like, although Jen Sturm’s clothing for Cleopatra looks impressive.

At the opening night, a few people in the back rows laughed out loud during the play’s final tragic conclusion. This disturbance included the recognizable sound of a prominent staff member who regularly laughs vigorously there on opening nights. If you can’t help noticing, especially if you’re unlucky to be sitting closely, you might think that this is a deliberate attempt to stimulate the audience to enthusiasm. I don’t think that’s the cause; I think it’s due to genuine appreciation for the actors’ talents. Nonetheless, doing so during an actual performance suggests an amateurishness unworthy of a company of this integrity.

Overall, though, I find reasons to admire much of how this looks and feels.

Antony and Cleopatra plays through May 21st in the Charity Randall Theatre at the Stephen Foster Memorial, Forbes Avenue on the University of Pittsburgh campus in Oakland.

Tickets at: Pro Arts Tickets: 412/ 394.3353 or online at
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