3,573 lines of Shakespeare.
42 scenes across two continents.
William Shakespeare’s fifth-longest play, Antony & Cleopatra, picks up about a decade after the events of Julius Caesar. It blends the politics and passions leading up to the Final War of the Roman Republic when a triumvirate of men share rule over the Empire: Mark Antony, Marcus Lepidus, and Octavius Caesar.
Pirates, sex, booze, war, and generally questionable behavior abound. Distracted warrior Mark Antony falls crown over sandals for Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt. After years of battles across the Adriatic Sea — and many shady political dealings — Rome conquers Egypt and the lovers, in turn, take their own lives.
In 2015, an international theater ensemble comprised of only three artists began developing an idea: a two-man production of Shakespeare’s Antony & Cleopatra. For nine months, the company — called Duomuži — met via Skype in an attempt to sculpt this foolhardy notion into something vaguely presentable. Those virtual meetings were followed by several weeks of in-person rehearsal before their Brooklyn opening and subsequent international tour.
The artistic triumvirate, sponsored by Fractured Atlas, includes recent UNC Wilmington graduate Luke Robbins, Czech actor-musician Ronald Prokeš, and New York director Colleen Sullivan. Armed with only two wooden folding chairs, a guitar, and a handful of small props, Robbins and Prokeš strut and fret their hour (and a half) upon the stage as four characters apiece. It fit nicely on the tiny stage of downtown Raleigh, NC’s Imurj. An ensemble piece — performed by a cast of two.
With no costumes to speak of, the duo relies on mastery of both verbal and physical nuance. They fly around the stage, sometimes embodying five characters in a single scene; but the relationships and intentions are always clear — clearer, I would argue, than many full-scale productions could hope to be.
With the subtlest of posture changes, Robbins switches from the tough Enobarbus to the Queen of the Nile herself. There is no trace of camp — no mincing about or falsetto voice. He is playing the truth and nothing but the truth. As Cleopatra and Octavius Caesar, Robbins serves as both lover and enemy of Prokeš’ lusty Antony.
Prokeš’ vocal morphs are as impressive as Robbins’ physical ones. His Lepidus slips in and out of Czech, helping greatly to distinguish him from Antony in quick-firing dialogue scenes. He, too, avoids campiness while playing Charmian, Cleopatra’s lady-in-waiting. It is rare to find actors so perfectly uninhibited, so unselfconscious. They gave themselves fully, in body and spirit, to both Shakespeare’s words and to the audience.
Sharing the role of Messenger — a composite character — the men prove that life can be given to characters who, on the page, are entirely lifeless. These expository, nameless drones have true identity and agency — something I have not witnessed before.
This adaptation hits the major plot points and paves over most of the rocky political terrain. Purists of the Bard and of history will decry the absence of the rebellious Sextus Pompey, the pure Octavia, and the mysterious Soothsayer. But the performances are so rich, and the direction so razor-sharp and detailed, that this universe feels fully populated.
Violence is handled creatively, with entire wars communicated by pantomimed fist-fights and brutal fist-fights communicated by the slamming and banging of chairs. Director Sullivan and her two actors have avoided the representational entirely, demanding that the audience move seamlessly between locations, time periods, and moods, with nary a pause.
Prokeš’ haunting original score is partially pre-recorded and partially live. He accompanies himself on the guitar, and his folky love tunes certainly help set the mood. But the character interpretations are so effective, and the scene’s intentions communicated so clearly, that the live music somewhat gilds the lily.
Rowan Magee’s simple lighting design makes good use of Imurj’s limited grid. Magee delineates this adaptation’s two major tones: the pounding heartbeat of lust and battle and the icy silence of loneliness and mourning.
The team of Sullivan, Robbins, and Prokeš has presented some of the most engaging and innovative Shakespeare that I have seen in years. I would make a concerted effort to see any of their future works. Unfortunately, Duomuži snuck into Raleigh with limited publicity, so the house was of moderate size. But in one night these guys made one hell of an impact on the way Shakespeare can be performed, before vanishing into the night like Hamlet’s ghost.
Just weeks ago, the trio began devising — via Skype, of course — its next project. CONTINUE, based on the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, NC, will be staged at the Barn Arts Collective in Maine.
When that production eventually flies through North Carolina — as I assume it will — I plan to be first in line to see it. I do hope you will join me.
DUOMUŽI’S ANTONY & CLEOPATRA (Imurj, July 26 in Raleigh, NC).
[RUN HAS CONCLUDED.]
Dustin K. Britt, a Triangle native, is an actor, director, and member of the board of directors of Arts Access, Inc., which makes the arts accessible to people with disabilities. He holds an M.A.Ed. in Special Education from East Carolina University and teaches locally. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment. You can find him on Facebook as Dustin K. Britt and via his movie blog Hold the Popcorn.