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Remember the days when Shakespeare was Shakespeare, soliloquies stayed in their places, and princes never became princesses?

Traditionalists can now take heart; in Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s "Antony and Cleopatra," now playing at the Brooklyn Lyceum in Park Slope, the girls are girls, the guys are guys, and everyone wears a skirt sort of. In other words, this production leaves Shakespeare’s play much as we imagine it must have been in Elizabethan times.

Director Rachel Macklin’s production is more than adequate but less than inspired. There’s romance, treachery and plenty of dead bodies littering the stage when the lights go out. But there’s not much to start hearts pounding or keep eyes riveted.

In some 42 scenes that alternate between Rome, and Egypt and its environs, Shakespeare relates how Antony squanders an empire for the love of a woman.

When the play opens, Antony (Gilberto Ron) is living a life of sensual pleasure in Cleopatra’s court. This enviable state of affairs is brought to an end when messengers bring Antony the news that his wife has died suddenly and Italy has been attacked by the renegade Sextus Pompeius (John Manzelli).

In Rome, Antony learns that Octavius Caesar (John Phillips) has been angered by Antony’s extended stay in Egypt and his refusal to give Caesar arms when he asked for them. The dispute is patched up when Antony agrees to marry Octavius’ sister, Octavia (Erin Kate Howard). But before long, Antony is back in Egypt and in Cleopatra’s arms. The disagreement flares again - this time with weapons, not words.

Fortunately, the Lyceum has a large enough stage to encompass both Rome and Egypt, and Macklin keeps royalty and retainers coming and going so briskly and fluidly that the play seems to glide rather than jump from scene to scene.

There’s an imaginative use of the two staircases on either side of the stage leading up to a balcony, in which the staircases become galley ships and the balcony the scene of battle. But for the most part, details of the setting are left to the audience’s imagination.

Costume designer Fang-Yi Tseng has dressed the actors in what every moviegoer recognizes as Roman togs - short tunics and sandals of a vague military nature. Only Octavius seems a little under-attired, lacking royal robes and headgear.

In fact, Phillips could have used a scepter, a crown, anything to confirm his imperial stature. Too often he looks and acts more like the captain of a baseball team than the ruler of an empire.

Ron is a solid Antony, but his love scenes with Cleopatra lack the passion that would make his impulsive actions believable.

The two most textured performances are given by Stacee Mandeville as Cleopatra and Bob Harbaum as Antony’s friend, Domitius Enobarbus.

Mandeville is flirtatious, wily and capable of a certain nobility. The scene in which she questions the messenger about Octavia’s looks is high comedy and a high point in the play.

Harbaum is sly, sensitive and sometimes drunk. It is he who predicts the tragic ending. In many ways his death is felt more deeply than Antony’s, despite the fact that Antony’s goes on for so long.

Macklin has produced an almost faultless Shakespearean tragedy. Technically the play is of a very high quality, and a fine testament to the stated goal of Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s founders, Macklin and Rich Warren: " to create a company where actors, directors, designers and technicians would work in close collaboration to build each production from the ground up."

The actors all present rounded characters they understand well. The tone never jars, and the action is never out of step. But something is missing. That something may be found in Macklin’s own words.

In the director’s notes, she writes, " the characters are delightfully human. We see their weaknesses as well as their strengths."

It’s hard to argue with this interpretation of the play. One can only wish Macklin had inspired her actors to create more human and layered portrayals on stage, to make each role personal and unique.

Perhaps Macklin and her cast have been just a little too kind to Shakespeare. Those directors who move speeches and scenes and settings may have a point after all.


"Antony and Cleopatra" plays through Oct. 27, Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 3 pm, at the Brooklyn Lyceum (227 Fourth Ave. at President Street) in Park Slope. Tickets are $15. For tickets, call (718) 866-GOWANUS or visit on the Web.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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