On power, privacy, and gender politics: ‘Antony and Cleopatra,’ at Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival

Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” runs July 10 through Aug. 4 as part of the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival.

Nondumiso Tembe as Cleopatra and Neal Bledsoe as Marc Antony in rehearsal for Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s production of 'Antony and Cleopatra' opening for previews Wednesday. (Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival)

Nondumiso Tembe as Cleopatra and Neal Bledsoe as Marc Antony in rehearsal for Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s production of 'Antony and Cleopatra' opening for previews Wednesday. (Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival)

It was sheer coincidence. On the January day that director Eleanor Holdridge gathered her design team for a first phone-in about the production of “Antony and Cleopatra” that opens this week at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, the new Congress was being sworn in.

Hmmmm, she thought: Antony, a ruler of Rome; Cleopatra, queen of Egypt. Ultimately, a clash of governments and genders. The U.S. Senate, with an old-school male leadership. The new House, infused with new women. A clash of governing and genders?

How much of that thinking will be apparent in the Shakespeare Festival’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” opening for previews Wednesday and running through Aug. 4, remains to be seen. But Holdridge is well aware of more links in the play that join Shakespeare’s time to ours.

One is the gender-based trash talk aimed at women in high positions. (Even Shakespeare’s queen, Elizabeth I, flummoxed many for — among other things — never taking a husband.) The new U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez “gets hate mail from people who can’t stand that she’s young, hungry — and in power,” says Holdridge. “People treat Cleopatra the same way.”

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Mixing business with pleasure is another theme that runs through the play, to the deadly downfall of two people who are leaders and lovers — an illicit lover in the case of married Antony — and whose attraction “conflicts with a personal sense of responsibility,” Holdridge says. The lack of privacy — especially for celebrities — is yet another theme as old as 1606, when Shakespeare was writing “Antony and Cleopatra,” and as current as now.

“They were trying to sustain a relationship filled with love,” Holdridge says, “but nothing they do is in private. There’s not a moment when they’re alone in any scene. How do you have a life when anyone can snap your picture and then everyone can see it in a second?”

Everyone seems to know “Antony and Cleopatra”; few have ever read it. It’s a mess. Some of Shakespeare’s most beautiful language is almost hidden by a rocky script that seesaws jaggedly back and forth between Rome and Alexandria.

Patrick Mulcahy, producing artistic director of the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival at DeSales University, just north of Quakertown, directed the festival’s first “Antony and Cleopatra” 10 years ago. He spent a year whipping the text of 3,600 lines and 42 scenes — some less than a minute — into producable shape.

You almost never see a Shakespeare that’s not edited by the director — it would go on too far into the night, and modern audiences would be confused by its denser, untouched sections. At the time Mulcahy was directing the play, he noted that audiences, purists included, are grateful for the editing. Even so, he said then, “it feels to me that for this play, Shakespeare never quite got to make the final edit.”

Out of courtesy, Mulcahy offered his script to Holdridge after she signed on to direct. “She did what any director would do,” he says, “which was to ignore that.”

She cut Shakespeare’s text to about 2,400 lines, zapping a third of it. “We need to tell audiences who to follow and who not to follow,” Holdridge says, “so I conflated some scenes.”

The play, and the players

Eleanor Holdridge, director of the festival’s production of ‘Antony & Cleopatra.’ (Provided)

Holdridge, a Yale School of Drama grad whose festival production marks the 24th Shakespeare play she’s directed (some, multiple times), says she has no compunctions about diddling with The Bard’s writing. “Not anymore. I used to. Sometimes I know we can get a word in context, from the way an actor delivers it, and sometimes it seems we will never understand what that word is. It’s not a museum we’re in. We’re creating a text that exists for people today.”

Likewise, the characters will be costumed in modern clothing by designer Sarah Cubbage, a design choice Holdridge believes is only right. “Shakespeare did his plays in what was contemporary clothing for him, so I’m doing it the way Shakespeare would.” The costuming will provide context, especially for the female roles and particularly for Cleopatra.

“I looked at Nicki Minaj and Beyonce,” Holdridge says, “women who enjoy their own sexuality but dress for their own pleasure and not for a dude. Sometimes Cleopatra’s dressed for the red carpet and sometimes she’s in a power suit.”

Nondumiso Tembe will play Cleopatra. (Provided)

Cleopatra, in this case, is Nondumiso Tembe, the South African daughter of two of Africa’s notable opera singers. She’s the first South African actress to earn, like Holdridge, a Yale master of fine arts. She’s performed on stages in the United States (including Princeton’s McCarter Theatre) and South Africa, and in film and TV. She studied classical ballet for 20 years, and has put out her first album.

Neal Bledsoe will play Marc Antony. (Provided)

Her Marc Antony is the actor Neal Bledsoe, who’s also worked at McCarter, appeared in a host of TV shows, and written for Sports Illustrated and Men’s Health.

They’re joined by 15 other actors, many doing “Antony and Cleopatra” in repertory with a very different play, Noël Coward’s sophisticated comedy “Private Lives,” at alternating performances. That play had long been on the festival roster for this season, but not “Antony and Cleopatra,” which Mulcahy says he slotted in place of a different play he’d chosen.

“Season selection is such a fascinating process,” he says, “and takes most of a year to nail down. We have plans going out 10 years, and then we change. I felt like this season needed a certain amount of voltage that “Antony and Cleopatra” would bring. When you’re looking at the whole season and you’re looking at a balance, and at spark, adding it created a different kind of dynamism.”

Mulcahy says the play is doing well in advance ticket sales, as it did 10 years ago. He says he won’t feel strange watching it done under Holdridge’s direction.

“It’s actually a great relief. It’s a little like I get to say, ‘Wow, I can just enjoy it and I didn’t have to direct it!’ It’s very refreshing — one of the things we all know to do in this industry is collaborate and learn from each other. This is a totally different idea than I had, a totally different group — and a totally different time.”

Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” runs July 10 through Aug. 4 as part of the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, on the main stage at the Labuda Center for the Performing Arts at DeSales University in Center Valley , Pa., north of Quakertown. www.pashakespeare.org or 610-282-9455. 

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