Theater review:

A new accent on 'Antony and Cleopatra' from Baltimore Shakespeare Factory

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Shakespeare packed 38 scenes — the most of any of his plays — and vibrant poetry into "Antony and Cleopatra." At once light and dark, the work swirls through a chapter in the history of ancient Rome and Egypt famously defined by a powerful woman of "infinite variety."

The play's scope and depth isn't always strongly realized in a staging by Baltimore Shakespeare Factory at the acoustically challenging St. Mary's in Hampden, but the production comes with a valuable bonus — original pronunciation.

The company periodically offers a Shakespeare piece as he and audiences in early 1600s England heard it spoken. This may be the first time in 400 years that "Antony and Cleopatra" has been done this way.

Thanks to scholarship, notably by British linguist David Crystal and his actor son Ben Crystal (both on Shakespeare Factory's advisory board), original pronunciation can be recreated with reasonable certainty. In this accent, the Bard's language bursts with surprising nuance and color.

The actors in this cast, directed by Tom Delise, may not hold onto that accent consistently (the day I attended, certain words, especially "Caesar," changed pronunciation within a single scene.) But the essence is there, and it's a wonderfully earthy sound.

One of the coolest things about going the original pronunciation route is how it blurs class distinctions, since, in those days, accents were more or less the same.

The sound seems closer to working class accents in rural Britain today than the way the Queen speaks — that would be "quayne" in original pronunciation. So here we get an Antony and a Cleopatra joined as much by their language as by their lust. It's fascinating.

As usual, the Shakespeare Factory production is performed Elizabethan style, in full lighting on a mostly prop-free stage (April Forrer designed the traditional costumes). This puts the focus all the more on the text.

Delise keeps the flow of events brisk and doesn't miss a chance to underline comic turns (or sexual innuendos) in the play; a drunken party scene is guided with extra flair. All that breeziness, though, makes it harder for the heart of the tragedy to emerge richly.

Most of the actors play multiple roles (several male roles are played by women, a now-common practice that puts a neat twist on the all-male casting of the Bard's time). I wish the cast held more seasoned performers, but there are assured, dynamic showings where it counts the most.

Chris Cotterman's approach to the role of the smitten Roman general Antony is one step removed from frat boy, all hormones and cockiness. Although more nuance would be welcome from the actor as the play nears its end, it's a telling portrayal.

As Cleopatra, Valerie Dowdle could also use greater expressive range in spots, particularly for the marvelous "immortal longings" speech. Otherwise, her interpretation — part-Valley girl, part-Ruxton socialite — proves winning.

As Octavius Caesar, Troy Jennings is a sturdy presence. He takes his time to savor the lyrical lament for Antony, and the breadth pays off.

Note, too, Emily Classen's vivid work in several roles; David Forrer's bold Pompey; Bethany Mayo and Isa Guitian as Cleopatra's maids; and Flynn Harne, who grimaces too much when on the sidelines, but otherwise hits the spot, putting a flavorful spin on Enobarbus' "Age cannot wither her" tribute to Cleopatra.

Like Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, Baltimore Shakespeare Factory likes to give audiences musical entertainment performed by cast members before the show, at intermission and sometimes afterward (the curtain song here is The Kinks' "Strangers").

I wish I could warm up to the practice. When, as with "Antony and Cleopatra," the actors aren't terribly proficient as singers or instrumentalists, the result doesn't enhance the overall experience much and, to me at least, just strikes the wrong note.

If you go

"Antony and Cleopatra" runs through April 23 at the Great Hall at St. Mary's, 3900 Roland Ave. Tickets are $15 to $20. Call 410-662-9455, or go to baltimoreshakespearefactory.org.

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