Botched military campaigns, inadequate strategic planning, hubris and fatal miscommunications abound as the world’s greatest power seeks to impose its will on a Middle East regime steeped in an ancient legacy of bloodshed.
We’re talking about Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” of course, but confusion with more contemporary tragedy is understandable when viewing an insightful present-day adaptation from the Thousand Oaks International Theatre Festival. Sporting several highly polished performances, the company signals its professional aspirations in this promising inaugural production.
Although ostensibly a drama about two of history’s most famous star-crossed lovers, a considerable amount of Shakespeare’s text is devoted to the intricate political alliances and machinations that led to their destruction -- the cat-and-mouse struggle for supremacy that determined the fate of the Roman Empire.
Attempting to make this complex backdrop easier to follow, co-directors Daniel Hainey and Niall Padden (who also plays Antony) employ a multimedia presentational format that includes a recurring “60 Minutes"-style interview with an eyewitness (John Ross Clark). From the perspective of a soothsayer, advisor, confidant and all-around moral compass, Clark’s well-performed narrations register the emotional consequences of the events he narrates.
On the other hand, the production’s earnest efforts to inform sometimes come at the expense of its mission to entertain, bogging down not only the love story but the pacing as well.
As Mark Antony, Padden forgoes the cliche of a dashing, romanticized figure, adhering more closely to historical fact. His 50-year-old Antony is a mature statesman at the forefront of Roman politics. He appears all the more pitiable when he throws away his future for the sake of his hopeless, obsessive love for the Greek-born Queen of Egypt (Imelda Corcoran).
With her spiked blond hair and chic costumes, Corcoran’s Cleopatra likewise projects a sophisticated seductiveness appropriate to the character’s stage of life. The performance humanizes Cleopatra early on, with her jealous jibes at Antony’s strategic marriage to rival Octavius’ sister (Jane Longenecker). Cleopatra’s regal authority and political savvy, however, aren’t showcased until very late in the evening, when she squares off against the victorious Octavius (Brett Elliott). Elliott’s performance is solid but sincere almost to a fault in proclaiming his honorable intentions toward the conquered queen. An ambiguous suggestion of guile and deceit in Octavius would give some possible basis to Cleopatra’s apprehensions of humiliation and make them seem less like paranoid delusions.
The sprawling cast of characters begets a variance in performance ability. But the directors have smartly deployed their best actors in the most prominent supporting roles: David Arrow as the scheming Pompey, Mina Badie as Cleopatra’s loyal handmaiden, and Tim Halligan as the ruling triumvirate’s third wheel (Halligan also displayed great generosity and skill in helping less capable performers through a difficult scene).
A striking original keyboard score conducted by composer Ray Colcord adds atmosphere and emotion. All in all, a promising debut from a company that bears watching.
‘Antony and Cleopatra’
Where: Scherr Forum Theatre, Thousand Oaks Civic Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays; 2 and 7 p.m. Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays
Ends: Sept. 16
Price: $25 to $65
Contact: (805) 449-2787
Running time: 3 hours, 15 minutes