Acting and staging shine in Antony and Cleopatra

This is a story about a very public love affair involving the rich and famous. Power grabs, gossip and suspicion lurk at every turn. An attention-starved, oft-jealous and never-boring woman stands at the center of it all.

It’s a story that sounds like something out of the nearest tabloid or stupidly popular reality show. Alas, this particular tale goes back a few more years than your average celebrity wedding or political sex scandal. Be it the 2000-plus years since the events transpired or the 400-plus since William Shakespeare adapted the tale for the stage, the story of Antony and Cleopatra has been around for a very long time, and theater company A Noise Within has staged this lesser-known tragedy in its new Pasadena playhouse to exciting results.

Forbidden love · Cleopatra VII (Susan Angelo, left) and Marc Antony (Geoff Elliott, right) follow their love to disastrous results in A Noise Within’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy Antony and Cleopatra. - Photo courtesy of Craig Schwartz

Spanning from the lavish royal palace in Egypt to the politically charged Roman Senate, the play covers the whirlwind romance of Roman general Mark Antony and Queen of Egypt Cleopatra VII in the middle of a massive power shift. The Roman Republic is on the brink of becoming the Roman Empire, which became the dominant force in the world for 500 years.

Antony is part of a triumvirate in charge of the Roman Republic, but instead of being in Rome solidifying the unstable political situation, he is completely enraptured by the famous Cleopatra — in the process ignoring his wife and his duties and enraging his co-triumvir, the ambitious Octavius Caesar.

Upon finally returning to Rome for his first wife’s funeral, he finds a new partner — Caesar’s sister, who Antony pursues in an attempt to strengthen his and Caesar’s bond.

It would have been a politically savvy move if it weren’t for Antony’s blind love for Cleopatra. Soon, Antony’s feelings for the queen get the better of him and he returns to Egypt, leading to a war with Caesar and a tragic ending for himself and Cleopatra.

Like many others, this tragedy has the central characters doomed from the beginning — but there’s something different about Antony and Cleopatra. Unlike the breathless, childlike infatuation of Romeo and Juliet, this play revolves around a much more self-aware, mature and realistic relationship. Where the adolescent lovers from Verona stay at the same infatuated lunacy throughout Romeo and Juliet, the middle-aged heroes of Antony and Cleopatra run through a huge spectrum of emotions. From jubilation to jealousy, paranoia to fury, anguish and shame, the characters suffer highs and lows together that require a certain degree of acting chops to execute convincingly.

The actors from A Noise Within perform this job admirably. Susan Angelo, the actress who portrays Cleopatra, launches into the absolute roller-coaster of a personality the queen possesses in the play. Angelo is able to jump from giggling at the death of Antony’s wife in one scene to torturing a messenger for bringing her the news of Antony’s new marriage in the next.

Geoff Elliott, also one of the two directors of the production, plays Cleopatra’s counterpart Antony with the same expertise, as he goes from being pulled along by his hyperactive lover to falling into despair at his failures on the battlefield.

Max Rosnak and USC alumnus Amin El Gamal steal their share of scenes as well, the former as Caesar and the latter as Mardian, a musically talented eunuch.

One surprise strength of the show — and one of the first things you notice about it — is the set. At first glance, it appears minimalistic, with pipes visible at every corner and adorned only with some drapes, pillows and a small pool — overall very bare.

The set takes advantage of what’s already there: The pipe structure, for instance, is integrated throughout the play as actors climb up the sides of sets and duck and dart between columns. The entire space is used, and the play often spills from the stage into the aisles, around the circumference of the stage and, in a couple of especially impressive scenes, into the air above the audience’s heads as the actors swing around on ropes during unexpectedly thrilling battle scenes.

This is an extremely physical rendition as far as Shakespearean plays go, and it works with the surroundings magnificently. The experience of not knowing from which direction information is to be gleaned fits very well with a story in which many of the characters are themselves struggling with which way to turn next, with news of great events coming over great distances.

The production takes on a lesser known work but jumps into it and the impactful events it portrays with aplomb. The sets and actors combine for a show so packed in energy, scandal and action that it will appeal to devout followers of Shakespeare’s works and casual fans alike.