A sumptuous tiled pool dominates the foreground of director Darko Tresnjak’s revival of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. The turquoise water swirls, invitingly, a little menacingly, against the pool’s mosaic. But that water, like the production that it ornaments, must be rather tepid to the touch.
Tresnjak sets the play in the late-Victorian era, when England and other nations carved up Africa as freely as if it were a Sunday-luncheon roast. This treats the audience to pleasing costumes (sashes, pith helmets) and sets (chandeliers, globes). The updating makes for some piquant moments—one easily understands Octavius Caesar (Jeffrey Carlson) as a boy who was bullied too much at Harrow, or his sister Octavia (Lisa Velten Smith) as a frigid English rose.
But, as with many a directorial embellishment, this temporal and cultural relocation doesn’t much illuminate the source text. Nor does the pale Laila Robins—her blonde locks concealed behind an unflattering wig—pass as the Egyptian queen. (Even with the wig, she’s still far more beautiful than the historical Cleopatra.) Few could quibble with Robins’s histrionic skills, but she and her Antony (New York newcomer Marton Csokas) communicate no grand passion—some lust, yes, and jealousy, too, but nothing worth dying for. Csokas performs masterfully in some scenes, but in others, he mopes and mumbles like a man who’s drunk too much Theban wine the previous night.
In attempting to give the play a more global reach, Tresnjak has botched the tragedy’s central relationship—indeed, his production lacks tragedy’s emotional heft. To paraphrase a text closer to the historical Antony and Cleopatra, what does it profit a director if he should gain the whole world, yet lose the play’s soul?