Above the river Patapsco, an engaging 'Antony and Cleopatra'

Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra" is a funny sort of tragedy. Although its martial and amorous complications have deadly consequences, this play has a lot of jokes along the way. Indeed, the snake that the Egyptian queen uses to kill herself is delivered by an irreverent little servant who wouldn't be out of place in a "Saturday Night Live" sketch.

This play's comic elements are zestfully brought out by Chesapeake Shakespeare Company in an outdoor production at Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park in Ellicott City. You're encouraged to imagine that this school's stabilized Greek Revival ruins evoke the ancient architecture within a play set during the Roman Empire.

You'd better have a vivid imagination, though, because this minimally staged version otherwise has almost nothing by way of sets and props. Aside from a few classically inspired gowns, most of the costumes are so contemporary that several of the actors sport loud Hawaiian shirts while playing pop and calypso tunes on guitars and other instruments.

The modern-dress approach also extends to the mid-20th-century-style military uniforms, which wouldn't be out of place on British soldiers fighting in North Africa in World War II. By the same token, a few of the younger soldiers look more like Eagle Scouts.

This Elizabethan-era play about ancient characters survives the "Twilight Zone"-worthy change in time zone, because the Bard's words remain the same and retain their power to hold an audience's attention in this twilight staging high above the Nile, er, Patapsco River.

Where the updated elements do the play a bit of a disservice, however, is with relentless joking that rips away too much of the play's dramatic fabric. Shakespeare's admittedly oddball tragedy falls short dramatically in the production directed by Ralph Alan Cohen.

It's fine to have extended audience sing-along sessions for the pop tunes, but this ultimately seems like a facile strategy to make the play seem relevant for a 21st-century audience. As for the pre-recorded battle sounds that should have a booming immediacy, they're produced by loudspeakers that don't speak very loudly.

What fortunately does speak loudly are the strong performances in the title roles. As Cleopatra, Isabelle Anderson looks like an archetypal femme fatale in her clinging red gown. Even by regal standards, the Cleopatra envisioned by Shakespeare has an imperious personality and dangerously fast changes of mood. As she says at one point: "I am quickly ill and well."

Anderson looks fiercely beautiful in this role, and her assertive line readings benefit from the lacerating humor that she brings out. Whenever she's on stage, this production ensures that you'll be hanging on every word of royal intrigue. It also helps that Cleopatra's attendants are well-portrayed, especially Molly Moores as Charmian.

Equally impressive is Matt Radford Davies as Mark Antony, the Roman general who falls in love with Cleopatra. Davies' blustery performances makes his character seem like somebody capable of conquering much of the ancient world and maybe a queen's heart as well. This actor is really persuasive conveying Antony's anger at the escalating events on the battlefield and in the bedroom.

More problematic is Patrick Kilpatrick's performance as Octavius Caesar. Initially, this actor's taciturn approach to the role is suitable and provides a nice dramatic contrast to all the shouting produced by Antony and Cleopatra. That stern visage eventually seems locked in place, though, and this Caesar comes off as rather flat in later scenes.

The complicated story actually is pretty easy to follow. Antony, Caesar and Lepidus (Dave Tabish) comprise the triumvirate ruling the Roman Empire. This invitation to political instability is further worsened when Antony falls in love with Cleopatra. For one thing, Antony is married to the unseen Fulvia; for another thing, Fulvia has warring aspirations of her own. When Fulvia suddenly dies, Caesar seeks to cement his political marriage of convenience with Antony by persuading Antony to marry Caesar's sister, Octavia (Jenny Leopold). To put it mildly, this hasty new marriage does not go over well with Cleopatra.

For added excitement, toss in a powerful pirate named Pompey (Eric Humphries), and a huge supporting cast of soldiers, bureaucrats, musicians, servants, a clown and even a eunuch. As the story cuts back and forth between short scenes in Rome, Egypt and elsewhere, it's enjoyable being swept up in a Middle Eastern political squabble that's even messier than today.

Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's "Antony and Cleopatra" runs through July 14 at Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, 3691 Sarah's Lane in Ellicott City. Its run overlaps with "Taming of the Shrew," running June 21-Aug. 4. Individual tickets are $15-$38; children under 18 are free with a ticketed adult. Call 410-313-8661 or go to chesapeakeshakespeare.com.

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