Theater Review: Antony and Cleopatra Pitch Woo in Hartford

The Hartford Stage may be far from the shores of the Nile, but this lively production of Antony & Cleopatra and the company’s rejuvenated theater space are fit for the entertainment of a Pharaoh.

John Douglas Thompson (Antony) comforts Kate Mulgrew (Cleopatra) in the Hartford Stage production of Shakespeare's history play.

Anthony & Cleopatra by William Shakespeare. Directed by Tina Landau. At the Hartford Stage, 50 Church Street, Hartford, CT, through November 7.

By Susan Miron.

To kick off the company’s 47th season, Hartford Stage’s popular Artistic Director Michael Wilson chose Shakespeare’s splashy celebration of doomed love, Antony & Cleopatra. But the renovated theater shown off on opening night garnered some pop-eyed reactions as well. Perhaps the revamped space did not attain levels of majestic, Egyptian lushness, but it was impressive enough to please just about everyone.

The volunteers and the women working in the box office and in the slightly expanded gift shop were brimming with pride. Someone in the row in back of me marveled about the 17 stalls in the ladies room, and the theater was abuzz with excitement about the stage’s new, dramatic lighting, the new theater design, and the sound system. There was no doubt that the packed house felt Hartford Stage was its own, an indispensable part of the community.

In his program notes for the production, Wilson explained his choice of Shakespeare for the theater’s reopening after five months of renovation. “We prize his plays above all because of his constant innovation, his reinvention, his exploration to the heights of human experience, a versatility that encompasses verbal comedy, history, tragedy, poetry, prose and everything in between”—a perfect description of Antony & Cleopatra, which comes at the end of the great tragedies and just before the lyrical, fantastic “romances.”

Ingeniously and energetically directed by Tina Landau, this production of Antony & Cleopatra features lots of well-placed and well-timed percussion music and dancing. The movement generates an animation that makes use of every inch of the huge, new, two-level stage. It also boasts two actors who are more than comfortable playing their larger-than-life roles. Kate Mulgrew, best known for her television role as Kathryn Janeway in Star Trek: Voyager, has been a Hartford Stage favorite since her turn in 2002’s Tea at Five, a one-woman play about Katherine Hepburn. With her dusky, come-hither voice, Mulgrew’s Cleopatra is an unabashed, smoldering siren, seductively clad and bejeweled—a woman who initially seems to have never not gotten her way. This is a very physical performance: Mulgrew’s belly dancer-ish arms are constantly in motion, conveying a multitude of emotions from anger and jealousy to libidinal overload.

John Douglas Thompson (Antony) and Kate Mulgrew (Cleopatra) share a lip-lock at the Hartford Stage.

Mulgrew’s sexual powerhouse is paired with the extraordinary actor John Douglas Thompson, renowned for his Shakespeare performances: Othello, Richard III, and Julius Caesar. His Antony is putty in his beloved’s hands, especially since his days of macho glory are behind him. He and Mulgrew are achingly convincing as a couple so recklessly drawn to each other, sexually and psychologically, that each is rendered incapable of making a rational decision regarding the placements of the army or anything else. Thompson’s monologues are delivered in his customary beautifully enunciated, magisterial manner. Mulgrew’s temptress comes off as more unpredictable, her voice reflecting the figure’s constantly shifting moods and personae.

Among a very good Hartford Stage supporting cast, two actors deserve special praise. Jake Green is hilarious as the messenger in a baseball hat and backpack who has the unenviable task of telling Cleopatra that Antony has married Octavia. And Kimberly Hebert Gregory as Charmian, one of Cleopatra’s handmaidens, almost steals the show each time she speaks. She plays the role as if she was an egoistical, great singer, her voice slowly and seductively asserting her power. The Hartford Stage may be far from the shores of the Nile, but this lively production of Antony & Cleopatra and the company’s rejuvenated theater space are fit for a Pharaoh.

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