Jennifer Lines and Andrew Wheeler play the titular lovers in the Bard on the Beach production of Antony and Cleopatra.
ANTONY and CLEOPATRABy Andrea Warner
It begins with a pillow fight. One of the most historically and politically important, passionate, and mercurial affairs of all time — that of doomed lovers Mark Antony and Queen Cleopatra — opens with a pillow fight: an all-limp, no-bang beginning ominously foreshadowing the next three hours.
Curiously dull but undeniably well-acted sums up the season’s second offering from Bard on the Beach. There’s a reason the tragedy Antony and Cleopatra is one of Shakespeare’s least-staged works. It explores a dense period of complicated political maneuverings that threatens to overshadow — and then ruthlessly overtake — its titular lovers. The play is made up of two competing storylines, and our heroes lose. Badly.
The action begins in the middle of an historically accurate maelstrom. Julius Caesar has been assassinated and Rome is now ruled by an uneasy triumvirate consisting of Mark Antony (Andrew Wheeler), Caesar’s adopted nephew Octavian (Haig Sutherland), and Marcus Lepidus (Allan Morgan). In addition to this intrigue, Antony finds himself distracted by Caesar’s former lover, the beguiling Egyptian queen, Cleopatra (Jennifer Lines).
Political machinations, misunderstandings, and epic battles ensue, and Antony proves he’s ruled by his hubris and his libido. Defeated by Octavian (who has now taken the name of Caesar), the lovers famously commit suicide to avoid capture: Cleopatra by clutching a venomous snake to her breast, Antony by falling on his sword.
The historical record here is messy and complicated enough, even without dramatic flourishes. The play’s most obvious challenge is that the action occurs offstage and is later explained in momentum-killing expository monologues. But actor-turned-director Scott Bellis’s vision for his two main characters is the production’s most baffling derailment. Antony and Cleopatra are, by turns, love-sick, petulant, and childish (they could be prototypes for Chuck and Blair’s spoiled shenanigans on Gossip Girl). We never fully glimpse any of the steely determination implicit in Egyptian royalty or a Roman warrior.
That Cleopatra comes off as merely manipulative rather than cunning is no fault of Lines, who’s reliably devoted to infusing every line and every stare with nuance and emotion. Wheeler’s Antony feels rudderless, but again, through no fault of the actor’s, who does his best to be commanding in the face of every infantile, moony moment.
Despite fine performances, there’s no passion or intensity on display. Antony and Cleopatra are meant to be wild forces at work. Here, they giddily collide without much impact.
Antony and Cleopatra runs to Sept. 24 on the Mainstage of Bard on the Beach in Vanier Park, 8pm. Tickets $18.75-$38 from 604-739-0559 and BardOnTheBeach.org