Wednesday, May 11, 2016

All Hail the Queen of The Nile

As one looks at today's political landscape, it appears that Hillary Clinton may soon become the Democratic nominee for the 2016 Presidential election. Among the many doubts thrown in her path have been questions about her honesty, her integrity, her lust for power, and whether she is capable of acting as the nation's Commander in Chief.

If one were to put aside all the personal animus toward Clinton, it would soon become obvious that female heads of state like Margaret Thatcher, Isabel Martínez de Perón, Ellen Johnson SirleafGolda Meir, Angela Merkel, Dilma Rousseff, Park Geun-hye, Benazir Bhutto, Corazon Aquino, Indira Gandhi, Violeta Chamorro, Mary Robinson, and Julia Gillard had no problems flexing their political muscle. Nor were their role models a fictional character like Xena, the Amazon queens (Penthesilea and her sister, Hippolyta), or a 50-foot woman.

Poster art for 1958's Attack of the 50-Foot Woman

Born in Alexandria, Egypt in 69 BC, Cleopatra reigned for 21 years until, during the Final War of the Roman Republic, she committed one of the most famous acts of suicide on August 12, 30 BC. A woman of uncanny intelligence, Cleopatra spoke Greek and Egyptian, claimed to be the reincarnation of the beloved Egyptian goddess Isis, commanded military and naval forces, and used her wits and sex to seduce and tame powerful men.

When she was 21 years old, she met and won the heart of 52-year-old Julius Caesar. Nine months later, she gave birth to a son (Cleopatra was still in Rome on March 15, 44 BC when Caesar was assassinated). Her love affair with Mark Antony has inspired numerous works of fiction (on December 25, 40 BC, Cleopatra gave birth to a pair of fraternal twins that had been fathered by the Roman warrior). If Helen of Troy had "the face that launched a thousand ships," Cleopatra had a much more inspirational combination of brains and beauty.

In 1957, Marilyn Monroe paid tribute to Theda Bara's
interpretation of Cleopatra in a series of photos by Richard Avedon
Justino Diaz and Leontyne Price starred in the 1966 world
premiere of Samuel Barber's opera, Antony and Cleopatra

* * * * * * * * *
San Francisco's African-American Shakespeare Company recently unveiled a stripped-down production of Antony and Cleopatra that was directed, designed, and lit by Jon Tracy. As the audience entered the theatre, they were confronted with a sparsely-furnished stage whose main feature was a wall of steel bookshelves filled with cardboard filing boxes.

L. Peter Callender and Edward Neville Ewell in a scene
from Antony and Cleopatra (Photo courtesy of AASC)

Working with an ensemble of six actors of noticeably varying levels of experience, Tracy attempted to present Shakespeare's story in a way that would capture its essence while imbuing certain moments with inflections, mannerisms, and movements that might resonate with AASC's audience. As part of its mission statement, the company explains that:
  • We believe the arts can change perceptions.
  • We believe that knowledge of the classics has great potential to empower communities of color.
  • We believe the African-American community has been alienated from discovering time-favored classics.
  • Our work has at its core an African-American aesthetic, steeped in an American sensibility, and a commitment to artistic and cultural experience.
Poster art for Antony and Cleopatra

I tip my hat to AASC's artistic director, L. Peter Callender (who portrayed Mark Antony) and to the statuesque Leontyne Mbele-Mbong (whose Cleopatra appeared as a strong-willed, manipulative head of state) for their commitment to the production's ambitious concept. As Tracy explains:
“The history of humanity is the history of our quest for power. We are taught that power affords us control and, being that we are fundamentally insecure beings, we seek these perceived strengths by way of personal and societal sacrifices. It’s true of every individual, household, community, and state, whether rich or poor, servant or king: each ultimately defined by the lengths we are willing to go to call the shots. We want our myth to be defined our way. We want to write the narrative. History shows us the terrible effects of this mindset unchecked.”
Leontyne Mbele-Mbong and L. Peter Callender in a scene
from Antony and Cleopatra (Photo courtesy of AASC)
“In Antony and Cleopatra, the community that either title character can fully control has become a community of two. Both have carved out a bubble for themselves, away from the rest of the world, a safe haven for their love that they feel can’t be touched by outside influence. Like all of us, fundamentally lost souls that are actually terrified by the power we’ve attained, they try to detach and find some sense of utopia where the above rules don’t apply. This is the story of what happens when leaders yearn to be the very humans they ran away from all those years ago in hopes of attaining a sense of legacy that, it turns out, is as mythological as the process they built to attain it.”
The scene in which Antony tries to negotiate with Sextus Pompey (played by Edward Neville Ewell) was a beautifully comic enactment of macho bluster. While Timothy Redmond had the thankless role of presenting Enobarbus as Antony's "fixer" (more like a mid-level corporate manager), Steve Ortiz's portrayal of Octavius Caesar struggled to find its stride. Indiia Wilmott appeared in several small roles, including Cleopatra's maid, Charmian, and Antony's aide, Eros.

Even if one is familiar with Shakespeare's tragedy (which is set in Rome and Egypt during the Final War of the Roman Republic), Tracy's attempt to reframe the action in a more contemporary and corporate environment ran up against several obstacles.
  • The performance space in the Buriel Clay Theatre presents some physical challenges, not the least of which is its acoustics.
  • With a severely edited script, only six actors, and the male members of the cast in business attire, it was often difficult to keep track of exactly who was doing what to whom in what felt very much like a CliffsNotes version of Shakespeare's drama.
  • Because the two lead actors have so much more professional experience and confidence than the supporting cast, the resulting imbalance weakened the production.
Leontyne Mbele-Mbong in a scene from
Antony and Cleopatra (Photo courtesy of AASC)

Performances of Antony and Cleopatra continue at the Buriel Clay Theatre through May 29 (click here for tickets).

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