The Austin Chronicle


Poor Shadows of Elysium boils this powerful Shakespearean tragedy down to its essential elements

Reviewed by Stacy Alexander Smith, May 16, 2014, Arts

Curtain Theatre, 7400 Coldwater Canyon Dr.
Through May 18
Running time: 2 hr., 15 min.

If Antony and Cleopatra were on Facebook, their relationship status would read: It's Complicated. Theirs is an imperfect coupling fraught by marriages with other people, children born, and wars waged. While it's true that by story's end, we have a pair of lovers who end up dead by their own hands, this is no middle-aged Romeo and Juliet. As older characters, they are more thoughtful and complex, not simply driven mad by lack of impulse control. In this play, the eponymous lovers are old enough to know better and thus must take full ownership of their self-destruction.

Although considered one of Shakespeare's seven great tragedies, it is also one of the least produced. Modern companies are often intimidated by its inherent casting and scenic design challenges. Yet this Poor Shadows of Elysium production boils this powerful work down to its essential elements. While 19th century audiences enjoyed the spectacle of lavish palaces and lush gardens in both Roman and Egyptian set-pieces, the folks at Poor Shadows are unapologetic in their focus on the text.

Costuming is kept simple. Indeed, Cleopatra's attendants Iras and Alexas look like undergraduates in ill-fitting sheets headed to a toga party in West Campus. The set is little more than a blank canvas. Yet these rudiments aid rather than hinder Poor Shadows' mission to foster an appreciation for Shakespeare's poetic genius. Fittingly, Dr. Joe Falocco, an English professor at Texas State University, directs. Considering the ample cuts made to whittle this show down to two hours and the 16 actors assuming 39 roles, Falocco and company are surprisingly successful at engaging their audience with fairly disorienting material.

Bridget Farias' lusty Cleopatra is as smoldering as one would hope, flattening Octavia, her rival in the affections of Antony. Farias and her real-life partner Kevin Gates (Antony) have an easy chemistry that is necessarily electric. Falocco, both erudite and affable, gives a helpful preshow introduction, alerting audience members to a color-coding device they've employed in the costuming to help viewers unravel the affairs of state between followers of Caesar and Antony. Red states and blue states? Guess which color represents our hero.

Although said hero's name appears first in the title and the original Elizabethan cast was all male, this play is clearly a showcase for the feminine Egyptian monarch. Not merely beautiful, Cleopatra is at one time a mother waxing poetic about her nurslings and a fierce commander in chief at another. Without a doubt, this is one of the most demanding and satisfying roles for a female actor – even as it eerily forewarns us of the myriad demands on the modern woman.

The reader will note my transformed byline this week as evidence that I may have a weak spot for tangled tales of competing allegiances in stories of love vs. profession. Life ain't no fairy tale, and nowhere is this colloquialism more apparent than in the story of Antony and Cleopatra.

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