It might sound batty at first, but Shakespeare's Cleopatra and Tennessee Williams's Amanda Wingfield (of The Glass Menagerie) have a lot in common.
You'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Cleopatra is the glamorous ruler of Egypt, an iron lady of international trade and a celebrity seductress who is also entangled in a bloody geopolitical struggle with Rome. Imagine Madonna in the mid-'90s, and imagine if she had not only ruled the pop airwaves and published Sex—the most successful softcore pornography/coffee-table book in history—but also had a private army and the ability to time-travel to the 1940s, where she seduced Winston Churchill, pissing off Stalin and Roosevelt and seriously complicating the Yalta Conference. This is Cleopatra.
Amanda Wingfield, on the other hand, is Williams's fading Southern belle who rules over a cramped apartment with exactly two subjects: her scornful son Tom (who hides conflicted feelings of superiority and self-loathing beneath a layer of venom) and a physically and emotionally limping daughter named Laura.
One queen rules deserts, the other rules dust bunnies, but they share distinctive qualities: They're both women trying to exercise power in a male-dominated world, presenting themselves as sweet objects of affection or tough negotiators, depending on which facade is most useful at the moment. They are both haunted by the ghosts of past lovers (Cleopatra by the murdered Julius Caesar, Amanda by a husband who abandoned her). Both watch their power slip like sand through their fingers. And both have had a lot of what Amanda terms "gentleman callers"—a point of pride or a point of shame, depending on who's asking.
Seattle Shakespeare Company's Antony and Cleopatra, directed by John Langs, is ambitious. Performed on the big stage of the Playhouse, the theater formerly known as Intiman, it runs for more than three hours and involves a boatload of local talent: set designer Jennifer Zeyl, Hans Altwies and Amy Thone (as the titular couple), and 18 other actors.
The sprawling production has a little bit of everything: a little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants. Some scenes sing and some mumble. At one point during the second act, an elderly lady sitting near me whispered, "This is taking forever." But 45 minutes later, during Cleopatra's famous suicide-by-snake scene, Thone had the audience in her hand. She only had to gasp at the snake's bite, and the audience jumped.
Langs is a talented director (and was recently hired by ACT as its new associate artistic director) who has shepherded memorably clear and nuanced productions of classics and new plays. But this Antony and Cleopatra feels like his eyes were bigger than his stomach. He tries valiantly to clarify all the major themes—Egyptian scenes are lit with sensual golden light, for example, and Roman scenes with a harsh white glare—but can't reconcile his sweet and sour into a fully blended soup, much less wrangle Cleopatra's confounding character.
Thone plays Cleopatra as regally impetuous and regally imperious by turns, but doesn't synthesize all of her character's moods into one clear, grounded person. (To be fair, Shakespeare's Cleopatra is a cipher who has bedeviled critics and directors for centuries.) Altwies's Antony, the macho military hero of Rome turned to jelly by his Egyptian love affair, is less problematic. But the production's most riveting scenes belong to two supporting actors. The first is Darragh Kennan as Octavius Caesar, a militarily gifted twerp—his first entrance has him jogging, doing push-ups, and exercising with a medicine ball while he barks out orders—who wants to take Antony down and capture Cleopatra for his own little menagerie. He can win a war but has no understanding of the human heart.
The second is Charles Leggett as Enobarbus, a Roman military man who's sided with Antony. For most of the play, he acts as a wise soldier-clown, a libertine who can see the clear truth—he understands war and the heart—while the rest have egos that cloud their judgment. By the end, Enobarbus's conflict over Antony's waning military power puts him in a damnable, and fatal, spot. His death is the show's most heartbreaking moment. Given the strength of Leggett's performance, this production might be called The Tragedy of Enobarbus.
The Glass Menagerie is much easier to grapple with. The setting and characters are infinitely less epic, giving director Braden Abraham and his actors more breathing room to play with little emotions and gestures. Its plot is almost ridiculously simple: Disappointed Southern matriarch and single mother Amanda (Suzanne Bouchard), who had to move her family to the working-class North, wants her daughter to find a husband. The daughter, Laura (Brenda Joyner), is afraid of everything and everyone except her delicate glass figurines. The son, Tom (a stand-in for Williams, played by Ben Huber), is a heavy drinker and a wannabe writer who resents having to support his family with a warehouse job and disappears every night to "the movies." A gentleman caller (Eric Riedmann), who Tom knows from the warehouse, shows up for dinner. Things go poorly, as they must.
Bouchard's tiny queen is much like Thone's grand one—calculated, with turn-on-a-dime changes from sweetness to snarling—but even colder. As an actor, Bouchard has an icy inaccessibility that sometimes works against her, since audiences normally want a voyeuristic look into the center of a character. But that quality serves her as Amanda, a woman who prefers to turn inward, living in her mysterious, downy memories instead of facing the cold problems of the present. When snapped out of her reveries, she hisses like a viper before falling back to her nostalgia, as surely as her daughter falls back to her figurines and her son falls back to his booze and his "movies."
Abraham's production is a clear, quiet, and sad version of a clear, quiet, and sad play. It is a reminder of that dying generation of disappointed Southern ladies—a few still walk among us—who never quite made the leap from the simple antebellum myths of their youth to the complicated facts of adult life.