The What You Will Shakespeare Company (WYW) just opened their second major Shakespeare production in a month’s time at the Channing-Murray Foundation: Antony and Cleopatra. Director Eric Krull makes an interesting link between the diva-like characters of the play and the many thematic parallels in modern hip hop music, but I am not sure if it was fully realized in this hip hop version. The only real incorporation of the hip hop element was the DJ-like musical interjections between scenes and acts, but this wasn’t carried into costuming or staging. While vanity seemed a clever and thoughtful linking device, by only using the music element the vision of the production was more confused than anything else.
The hip hop element could have been carried into the set, staging, or costumes, and would have been a better choice in this last case than the sad and all-too-revealing slave sacks that were used. Granted, this is a student production (not that we should ask anything less of them) operating with limited funds, but the pillow cases tied with rope to appear as togas could have been improved. Also, all of the actors looked incredibly uncomfortable walking about barefoot, and the male characters really struggled with their senatorial garb to a distracting degree. Bright colors, sneakers, and a full embrace of the hip hop aesthetic would have been more feasible, more appropriate, and would have served as a fun contrast to the dark and woody Tudor-style interior of the Channing-Murray space. The only set pieces were two columns made of mirrors that almost too pointedly emphasized the issues of vanity and may not have been worth the effort when Krull already had an interesting space to work with. Antony (Patrick Harris) and Cleopatra (Kate Stephens) had a lot of lines to swallow and didn’t miss a beat, however Harris was too much the stoic and Stephens too much the diva to find any chemistry, unfortunately.
Overall the production suffered from a sense of overt seriousness and gravity that left no room for emotional development or cathartic crescendo. Harris seems to be cast by the group–and his is quite the veteran with ten WYW productions under his belt–most often in serious roles like last season’s Doctor Faustus than comedic roles. This may be perhaps due to his dead-pan delivery and general demeanor of gravitas. However, his use of this same affect as Sir Andrew Aguecheek in WYW’s last product was probably one of his best roles, resulting in a Monty Python-esque thoughtful humor. The fact that the leads didn’t overwhelm the production–which tends to be a problem for this play, like Macbeth–left room for the often unsung supporting roles to get a little more attention. Sarah Chaney’s Charmian provided desperately needed comedic brevity, even if it was only in a well-timed sardonic affect and some slapstick miming. Nevertheless, this worked. One of my favorite minor roles, Enobarbus, got interesting treatment from Mark Pajor, who found a chummy initial characterization that was worked into a believably guilt-wracked traitor. (Check out this great interview with Patrick Stewart and several cast members of the Royal Shakespeare Company discussing his two famous interpretations of Enobarbus.)
It is Homecoming this weekend at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, so seeing Shakespeare may not be on the top of your list. I cannot say that this production would serve as the best substitute either. It just seemed that Krull didn’t fully commit to his concept. Rap and Shakespeare definitely go together: the Q Brother’s 2008 Funk It Up About Nothing won the Dress Circle Award for Best Musical among several other awards at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It is a genius “ad-rap-tation” and is thankfully coming back to the Chicago Shakespeare Theater in early 2011. This production is a lesson well learned for the company on the necessity of taking risks and fully committing to an idea, however unconventional it may seem.
- The What You Will Shakespeare Company‘s production of Antony and Cleopatra plays at the Channing-Murray Foundation on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus until 23 October.
- The Chicago Shakespeare Theatre‘s remounting of Funk It Up About Nothing plays Upstairs at their Navy Pier theatre in Chicago from 21 January to 13 February (2011).
- I highly recommend seeing this production and getting your tickets early, having seen the original incarnation in 2008 staring the authors, the Q Brothers.