Passion. Jealousy. Intrigue. At the Elliott Program Center this week, the Stanford Shakespeare Company (StanShakes) brings to life the glittering, exciting, and tension-ridden world of “Antony & Cleopatra.”
The boldest choice the production — directed by Rayna Smith and produced by Christina Lee — makes is in its casting: Antony is portrayed by a female, Kaya McRuer (‘17). This choice speaks to gender inequity in Shakespearean plays and allows for a more feminized power dynamic between McRuer and Cleopatra (Melanie Arnold ‘16). McRuer acts with a great deal of masculine energy – in her heavy, forceful gait, her clenched jaw and her ferocious glare – and the juxtaposition between her gender identity and the language of the traditionally male Antony is fascinating.
Of course, the play would be nothing without palpable chemistry between the leads, and, fortunately, McRuer and Arnold prove an electric pair. In their tender moments, they kiss with passion and cling to each other as if the whole world depended on their unity. In an instant, however, Cleopatra’s highly jealous nature can turn the tides, and their fights are equally charged. Like McRuer, Arnold impressively immerses herself in her character – the complicated queen of Egypt, Cleopatra. Her voice can take on an edgy, caustic note when jealous, and is smooth as silk when affectionate toward Antony. Arnold’s straight posture and powerful stage presence convey Cleopatra’s confidence and allure, but the character’s susceptibility to tremorous emotions reveals a splendid humanity within.
As for the production design, the set is simple enough to accommodate these two dimensions of the piece; different images and colors are projected onto white backgrounds, providing a visual manifestation of each mood. Red flashing lights, for example, accompany the play’s vibrant battle scenes.
At the play’s heart, beneath the debauchery and humor, is the evident deep-seated love between Antony and Cleopatra. They would rather die together than face the prospect of separation. At the play’s end, Antony, having slid a sword into his side, holds off death long enough to make it to Cleopatra’s arms. And, not long after her lover’s death, she follows him into oblivion, along with her two trusty servants (Eva Borgwardt and Davis Leonard). Though this is a tragic ending, Cleopatra and Antony remain triumphant to the end. Arnold’s face is downright elegant as her character dies upright – as if seated atop her throne.
With nuanced acting and an energetic cast, StanShakes ultimately does justice to the age-old story of Antony and Cleopatra. Though “Antony & Cleopatra” is a difficult play to execute for its large cast and sweeping script, the company does so with aplomb.
“Antony & Cleopatra” will be playing February 24-27 in the Elliot Program Center.
Contact Madeline MacLeod at [email protected]