Shakespeare gets a lot of flack for being precious; swaddled in the cotton of industry, academia, and sanctity. And while his plays deserve all due reverence for their ability to, through warp and woof of plot and language resonate behind an audience’s sternum four hundred years after their target audience was moldering dust (Anyone else you know who can say the same? Look’n at you askance, Eugene O’Neil. Go tell Boucicault he can suck a jugful of gall.), it’s nice to know that you can bounce the Bard off a concrete floor and he’ll rebound right back at you.
This is pride of Boise Bard Players. In the backrooms of breweries (Thank you, Mad Swede), and the courtyards of the capital, they bring out no-frills, fast-paced plays with their genitalia jokes well in hand. This spring they have set their pickets high donning the gigantic robe of Anthony and Cleopatra, the geopolitical tragedy that no local company in living memory has dared produce, in an intimate space with We Didn’t Start the Fire audible from the bar in the next room (Appropriately).
And they’ve made it fun. Matthew Melton and McKenna Kline sashay through the eponymous power couple. Melton exudes a self-confidant seriousness, showing suavity to his queen and throwing swagger and violence into the face of his rival, cold-blooded Octavian Cesar (Michael Burns), while co-directors Chris Canfield and Emily Clovis have allowed him to exercise his comic talents through late breaking surprises. Kline flows her away across the stage, striding poses of anguish, rage and ecstasy like a mercurial renaissance statue. But, though they throw themselves forward with admirable abandon the production hasn’t quite solved the problem (never satisfactory to me in reading the script) of what links the Roman General and the Egyptian Queen. Its less immortal love than two planetary egos caught by each other’s gravitational fields.
But those two planets are homes to remarkable species. Cleopatra, in the manner of autocrats everywhere is attended by a trio of courtiers, her ladies-in waiting Charmian and Iras (Samantha McAllister (who doubles as an adorable Lepidus, besweatered ruler of the Roman world) and Hayden Pedersen) and an invaluable lord Alexas (Lorenzo Rodriguez). It’s all very The Devil Wears Prada, as the triumvirate secretariat they placate their boss, let her rewrite the past, cast wild expressions over her head, and alternately glide to enact a wish before it is wished or saw at their necks when the boss doth change her royal mind. For Anthony, he’s faithfully dogged by Enobarbus (Taylor Hawker) a career solider often found with a glass of Mad Swede Brew in one fist. Hawker cannonballs through the play, calling commentary at a meeting of the triumvirate (to the embarrassment of his commander) and piteously nursing a headache after a night of revels. He also leans into the text fearlessly, painting the famous picture of Cleopatra (“The Barge she sat in, like a burnished thrown, burned on the water”) painting the picture with the revived up awe of one who finds himself surfing the gnarly and treacherous wave of history.
The clarity of his text is particularly sweet for its rarity. Though the production knows what its about not everyone has quite figured how to soar through the verse. There’s much in the way of “Gesticular Torsion,” painfully binding up the flow of a speech, and many patches where the verse became whitewater of feeling rather than the deep, clear, fast moving beauty of verse. But there plenty of times, particularly in the smaller speeches when the speech was spoken trippingly, across the tongue, the pentameter and anthesis and interior reference becoming what they’re supposed to be: muscle and bone hidden out of mind but driving the moment of beautiful expression.
The play itself is vast in both territory, numbers, sheer time of production (cut by Canfield and Clovis for the fastest run but the most poetry and genital jokes) and it takes heroic effort to find moments to act amidst all that pomp. As the lovers fortunes begin to wilt, culminating with Anthony scrabbling (convincingly on Melton’s part) with a agonizing gut wound, Cleopatra takes more and more of the ring. At one point Kline hurls invective, wide eyed and fever bright, at the emperor, thrusting herself over the railing, balancing on her hips. Burns takes none of it, playing Octavius with a measured coldness that makes us cheer her fire all the more. Earlier in the play we’ve seen Burns struggle to keep up with Anthony’s largess, worrying his honor like a terror does a rat. But as his power swells Burns cuts through the action with the balanced coil of a switchblade. We’ve seen him smile as he prod his sister Octavia (Madeline Keckler) into an unwilling match (made all the more unsettling by his professed regard for her welfare) and when Cleopatra attempts to cast her fabled charms at him Octavius brushes her aside grinning, “Uh, No.”
Even the tragic ending gets a good dose of fun. As Cleopatra (Kline now rapturously clam, sharing a joke with a clown, and sketching her own immortal future) prepares to take her life by snake, Iras, setting the basket, gets bitten first. As the poetry that has survived so long dances in our ears we’re treated to the blackly comedic sight of Pedersen nervously holding her finger out, unwilling to stop her Queen mid-monologue, before dropping, twitching, as the venom chills her blood. This prompts a rush, Cleopatra and Charmian essentially mainlining the snake so as not to be left behind to the mercies of the Romans. Cold political Octavian is not met with a stately array of royal corpses but a pile of beauties splayed on the floor. In spite of everything it oddly feels more like a victory for Cleopatra and her girls, and a way to keep an enormous play fresh, exciting, tragic and alive.
Originally posted on Facebook by Ben Kemper on March 7, 2020. Ben is a local actor and storyteller in Boise, Idaho.