Stage & Dance

'Antony and Cleopatra' is a triumph on every level

The overcast skies had threatened rain all day Wednesday, a terrible foe of outdoor theater. The question lingered all day: Would the show go on? But by early evening, the gathering clouds and graying skies had abated and the opening night of the second annual KCTC Summerfest went off without a hitch.

Inheriting the venue and materials of the defunct Lexington Shakespeare Festival, SummerFest, by the Kentucky Classical Theater Conservatory, launched its sophomore season with Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, a challenging play not frequently performed, perhaps because it is one of the few Shakespeare plays to defy categorization.

Not quite history, not quite tragedy, Antony and Cleopatra is a passionate tale of love and lust for romance and political power. For Antony, one of the three leaders of Rome since the assassination of Julius Caesar, and Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, love and lust are inseparable. The passionate love affair they begin in Alexandria is thwarted when Antony must return to Rome after the death of his wife, who challenged Octavius Caesar, another of the triumvirate of Roman leaders. It is out of civic Roman duty that he returns home, even going so far as to marry Caesar's sister to ensure political peace, but it is his obsession with Cleopatra that ultimately drives him back to Alexandria, where he plans to rule his portion of the Roman empire side by side with Cleopatra's rule of Egypt.

Of course, war, betrayal, confusion and tragedy quickly follow.

Director Joe Ferrell has again fashioned a show of immense elegance, sensual potency and compelling beauty. What sets this show apart from other Shakespearean dramas is the intensely personal nature of the relationship among its characters, relationships whose intimate dynamics eclipse their political ramifications. Pitch-perfectly cast with some of the area's finest talent, this production is definitely not to be missed.

The ensemble cast excels in creating clearly defined characters, whose elocution of Shakespeare's language is so expertly delivered that the material feels easily accessible to even the most inexperienced theater-goer. Their careful, sensual pacing of the show creates a mesmerizing, almost dreamlike effect on all of the action, drawing one deeper into the psychological landscape of Rome and Egypt, of Antony and Cleopatra.

Eric Johnson and Ellie Clark have palpable chemistry as the two lovers who risk empires to be together. The intense physicality of the pair is a hallmark of this show, making for some provocative staging at times that underscores the duo's potent sexuality, a shared trait that encompasses not only the physical, but the political, emotional, even spiritual. Whether the two are really in love, in lust, or more fixated on playing out the full spectrum of war on each other is up for debate. Deciphering these characters' possible motivations leads to compelling post-curtain discussion. To what extent did their political ambitions cloud their love affair? Did they really love each other? Or the idea of power?

The whole cast functions as a finely tuned unit, but Clark stands out as Cleopatra, one of the most complexly drawn of Shakespeare's female characters. She is, quite simply, phenomenal. The breadth of her performance is worth seeing over and over. In the span of three minutes, she might exhibit 10 emotions, from cruel punishment to petty whining to raging anger to vulnerable concession. Embraces are often followed by curt shoves; shouting matches are transformed into seduction.

Seduction, sensuality, passion, raw appeals to power and submission, all seep through the fabric of this show, making for a uniquely textured experience. Technical elements serve to underscore the play's sumptuously sensual overtones. Kay Lea Meyer's lighting bathes David Steinmetz' set in lush, inviting color during Egyptian scenes and bare, more basic, functional lighting in the Roman scenes. The lighting also plays beautifully off of Kirsten Aurelias' costumes. In particular, the royal wardrobe of Cleopatra and her attendants are fluid, flowing, shimmering, beautiful — perfect representations of the feminine power of Egypt, which heavily contrast with the more austerely masculine Roman attire.

Perhaps what is most appealing about this show is that it is a love story, yes, but unlike the Bard's most famous love story, Romeo and Juliet, here we are in the realm of grown-ups, fully developed, older characters who are not star-crossed or doomed by fate. This makes for more interesting dissection of their romance and what's more, much more riveting and emotionally satisfying theater.