This year’s Fringe Festival puts Antony and Cleopatra right back where we’ve imagined them for centuries: in front of a limestone Sphinx, flanked by the massive columns of an ancient Egyptian palace. Not a set design by an ambitious designer — this staging of the Shakespearean drama takes place in front of the real artifacts in the Penn Museum’s famous Sphinx Gallery.
Antony and Cleopatra: Infinite Lives is a play-within-a-play that brings Shakespeare’s historical tragedy and the contemporary uprisings in Egypt into a roiling mix. The production melds the bard’s original with a script by Pete Barry and J. Michael DeAngelis (also the director) of the Porch Room, a group out of Muhlenberg College.
The story involves a narcissistic theater director, Kitt Marsh (Devin Plantamura) with a penchant for bending the truth and a thirst for revolution, who mounts a production of Shakespeare’s play at the time of the recent Egyptian unrest. Kitt prepares his show in America, in a gallery of Egyptian artifacts, at the behest of some very important donors, while a nervy, opportunistic museum director (Aaron Dinkin) hovers. A petulant cast — from a hyperventilating blond Cleopatra (Willa Granger) to an angry Enobarbus (Amelia Williams), a woman cast in a male role — dogs Kitt’s every decision. Things get interesting when Kitt’s beautiful fiancée, Nassima (Orysia Bezpalko), a young Egyptian woman, receives an unexpected visit from her brother Gamal (Dustin Karrat).
Fresh from the violence of the Arab Spring in Tahrir Square and appalled to learn of his sister’s atheist, American fiancé, Gamal nevertheless finds an apparent rapport with Kitt, who is inspired to re-make his production as a contemporary statement on Egypt’s latest revolution — and take it to be staged in Egypt.
Kitt, a wannabe arts revolutionary and Occupy Wall Street-er is drawn to Egypt by his scheming stage manager, Olivia (Hannah Van Sciver), a former lover, who hatches a plan where the two of them can enjoy the revolution without Kitt’s new fiancee. They seem to view joining the Egyptian protest as a repeat of Occupy Wall Street, only awesomer.
In this ambitious play about history and tragedy, American privilege versus the true sacrifice of Arab Spring protestors is a prominent theme. But scenes bubble over into idealistic hyperbole, and while the scope and concept are admirable, the overstuffed script drags, particularly in the second half (far exceeding the two-hour run time noted in the catalog).
The dialog of Infinite Lives, whose title refers to the ways Egyptian society comes to crisis again and again through the ages, packs in almost everything — a primer on Egyptian history; the ethics of museum funding; religious and cultural clashes; revisionist art-forms; and the role of political theater, not to mention lengthy spells of Shakespeare’s original text and distracting satires on theater artists themselves. And a long, portentous dialogue between two symbolic Cleopatras – the blonde actress and the one from modern Egypt — hammer the script’s historical and contemporary juxtapositions home.
Social media may have fueled protests in Tahrir Square. It also fueled the audience when I saw the production. By the second half of Infinite Lives, many of the Penn students in the audience were buried in their smartphones, the surreptitious light bathing their faces while Cleopatra grasped her asp.
Several strong performers buoy the over-extended script. Bezpalko and Dan Wolfe (Marc Antony) are sharp and graceful in their Shakespearean scenes, with the angst of Amelia Williams’s reluctantly-cast Enobarbus adding additional fire. Rebecca Kotcher (Charmian), performing her own original songs on the guitar in the role of Cleopatra’s attendant, provides irresistible (though admittedly anachronistic) musical interludes. Olivia Rutigliano’s costumes keep pace with the play-within-a-play’s shifting aesthetic, doing justice to a committed young ensemble.
The Porch Room, an independent theater and film company founded by four Muhlenberg grads, and the Underground Shakespeare Company, founded by a troupe of Penn students over a decade ago, jointly present Antony & Cleopatra: Infinite Lives as part of the Philly Fringe Festival.
“Antony and Cleopatra: Infinite Lives,” directed by J. Michael DeAngelis, is at the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology as part of the Philly Fringe Festival. Tickets are $20 and the show’s final performance will be Sept. 15th at 8pm. For tickets, visit the Fringe Festival website.