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Love that topples superpowers

Directors of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Antony and Cleopatra” hope the audience will see the human side of the drama’s two epic characters in addition to their historical significance.

“We want the audience to get a glimpse of world powers as humans,” says Dawn Monique Williams, who's assisting director Bill Rauch, the festival's artistic director.

"Antony and Cleopatra," set in modern times in the outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre, is the story of the love affair between Roman warrior Mark Antony and Egyptian queen Cleopatra that brings about their own undoing, topples an Egyptian dynasty and births the Roman empire.

"In a time when our world is ever more global, and tensions between East and West and our relationship to the Middle East are so rich and complex and disturbing, to look at Shakespeare's rendition of events, from 2,000 years ago, written 400 years ago, through the lens of the 21st century and through the lens of the United States, is completely fascinating," Rauch says in a video on OSF's website.

"It's a sprawling, messy, gorgeous play that looks at a very mature love between two superstars, two world powers. So it is both a very intimate look, a very burnished love story ... the mature "Romeo and Juliet," if you will — and it's a play that's about world politics," he says. "The interrelation between the personal and the global political, that's always present in Shakespeare, is never more vibrant than it is in 'Antony and Cleopatra.'"

To achieve their goal of humanizing the two rulers, Rauch and Williams delve into the love story and the minutiae of the couple’s daily lives.

“You have to believe they love each other and are in all of this from that impulsive, restless passion,” says Williams, who, as associate director, gives Rauch feedback and manages many of the production elements.

Cleopatra’s son by Julius Caesar makes an appearance in the play, although he’s not in Shakespeare’s text, to remind the audience that Cleopatra was also a mother.

“You get glimpses of their divided roles as parents, husbands and wives,” Williams says.

Rauch describes the drama as one of Shakespeare’s most cinematic, as there are more than 40 scene changes. As staged, there will be fewer locale changes, and an electronic signboard will alert the audience to location, whether it’s Rome, Alexandria, at-sea or elsewhere.

Some of Shakespeare’s text is excised from this production, which runs about three hours with an intermission. A reference to the “Shirt of Nessus” gets the ax as modern audiences wouldn’t get it any more than Shakespeare’s contemporaries would relate to Facebook.

“It’s a challenge of not wanting to just hack the text, but also to make these topical references have meaning,” says Williams. Actors help illuminate the text’s topical references.

To better reflect contemporary society, women are cast in roles that traditionally would have gone to men. The cast has 24 actors, with seven of them performing more than one role.

“Now we have women in the military and women as authorities,” Williams says. “It adds a new dynamic."

Veteran festival actors Derrick Lee Weeden and Miriam A. Laube play Antony and Cleopatra.

“She was a polyglot. She spoke several languages, so we are taking advantage of that,” Williams says. Cleopatra also sings a song.

Shakespeare wrote musicians into the play, so a small ensemble sits on stage and there is recorded music.

Egyptian scenes are lush and sensuous, says Williams. In contrast, Rome appears very much ordered and cold.

“You want to be in Egypt, that’s where the party is," Williams says.

On rereading and studying the play for this production, Rauch and Williams came to appreciate it once more, especially for the characters' humanity.

“We just fall in love with the writing again and again and again," Williams says.

Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at tboomwriter@gmail.com.

Miriam A. Laube and Derrick Lee Weeden take the starring roles in 'Antony and Cleopatra,' playing in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre. OSF photo by Jenny Graham
Bill Rauch directs 'Antony and Cleopatra' OSF photo