There's a wonderfully exuberant scene just before intermission in the production of "Antony and Cleopatra" at the ,, Shakespeare Theatre in Washington. The Roman triumvirate of Mark Antony, Octavius Caesar and Lepidus have just forged a peace treaty with the rebel Pompey, and they're celebrating aboard his galley.
As staged by director Ron Daniels and choreographer Karma Camp, the celebration shifts to high gear when Antony and his devoted follower, Enobarbus, demonstrate an Egyptian dance on top of the banquet table. Soon almost all the assembled military brass join in, kicking and stomping in unison while the swaying, overhead lanterns cast shadows on the vast open space behind the table.
It's a stunning, spirited moment. But oddly, it turns out to be one of the most passionate in this play about one of the world's greatest romances.
Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra" is often compared to "Romeo and Juliet" -- sort of the gray-haired version of those teen-age raging hormones. But at the Shakespeare Theatre, mature love appears to be more fondness than passion.
The bond between Helen Carey's queen of the Nile and Tom Hewitt's Antony may have been forged with white heat, but now it's cooled to mere warmth. Our first view of them together -- cavorting with puppy-like abandon -- is also their sexiest.
Carey is one of the Shakespeare Theatre's strongest leading ladies and Cleopatra is definitely one of Shakespeare's strongest heroines, but the actress takes a more intellectual than visceral approach here -- an unlikely choice in a play about the havoc the heart can wreak on the mind.
Carey isn't Cleopatra the temptress, she's Cleopatra the schemer -- a woman whose cunning, mercurial temperament allows her to swoon at bad news and recover seconds later. She's more shrewd than sensual.
Indeed, when Edward Gero's noble but dissipated Enobarbus delivers the famous speech describing Antony's first view of Cleopatra, his words convey more romantic magic than the rest XTC of the production generates.
Though we don't feel Cleopatra's amorous spell, we do see its effect on Antony. Compared to the other two-thirds of the triumvirate -- Emery Battis' feeble, aged Lepidus and Wallace Acton's effete Octavius Caesar -- Hewitt's Antony certainly looks like a commanding leader. That impression heightens the psychological deterioration that this "pillar of the world" suffers when he allows his attraction to Cleopatra to overwhelm his military judgment.
It's not merely that Hewitt's Antony cowers on the ground, covering his head with his coat in shame; the full extent of Antony's decline surfaces when, after a mere kiss, he suddenly laughs, as if he has been infected by Cleopatra's own mood swings.
Besides Gero, strong supporting performances are also given by Brett Porter, who plays Pompey's bloodthirsty right-hand man, Menas, as a cross between a biker and a pirate; and Michael Solomon as Antony's steadfast Eros, whose final act of loyalty is among the more moving scenes.
Overall, however, the Shakespeare Theatre's interpretation will not overwhelm you with the power of loyalty or love. Daniels stages some commendably quick entrances and exits, but one way he accomplishes this is by having the same actors in the same costumes portray soldiers on opposing sides, a tactic at cross purposes with the very notion of war.
Nor does the production's design enhance the play's central conflict between the hedonistic East and the rational, militaristic, duty-bound West.
The chief elements of Michael Yeargan's chilly set design are a dark gray, metallic front wall with a pyramid-shaped opening and several giant, iconic cat statues, which let us know when we're in Egypt. Gabriel Berry's Egyptian costume designs, despite appropriately hot colors -- mainly pinks, oranges and reds -- have lines so angular they reinforce the hard edges of the story, instead of the flowing crests and troughs of romance. Only composer Bruce Odland's exotic music aptly suggests the magnetic pull Egypt exerts on Rome.
In far too many respects, however, this is a romantic tragedy in which the fatal flaw seems more like a chemical imbalance than romantic chemistry.
L Where: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. N.W., Washington
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 7: 30 p.m. Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, and noon Jan. 15. Through Jan. 19
Call: (202) 393-2700
Pub Date: 12/27/96