Reviewed by Dr. TIFFANY RAYMOND, PhD
Feminist swag is often emblazoned with reminders that the future is female. Director Jennifer Tober doesn’t limit that to the future.
The past and present are female, too, thanks to Tober’s all-female production of Shakespeare’s Antony & Cleopatra, which she has cleverly adapted into the far more logical Cleopatra & Antony. Cleopatra is the royal, after all, and one of Shakespeare’s most complex female characters, so she should get top billing.
Tober is the founder and artistic director of Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks, celebrating its 19th season of bringing Shakespeare to audiences outdoors. Tober is innovative in all the right ways, pulling Shakespeare’s 1607 tragedy into the 21st century. Tober flawlessly interweaves snippets of popular songs into the play, strategically timed to highlight critical moments. Simple yet effective, dance choreography by Jennifer Tober, Kalee George, and Alexandra Hellinger complements the music.
When Marc Antony (Harper York) announces her departure for Rome, Cleopatra (Callee Miles) dissolves into histrionics, accusing her of betrayal. Cleopatra and her court burst into Beyonce’s “All the Single Ladies,” ending with a saucy pout, left arms extended, ring finger outstretched, singing, “then you shoulda put a ring on it.” The timing heightens the irony. The audience is cringing. We know the reason for Marc Antony’s departure is the death of her wife, yet the well-cast York stands reserved and stony-faced, accepting the insensitivity we feel.
The impetuous Cleopatra breaks into this performance before Marc Antony can share the news of her widowhood. Suddenly, she could “put a ring on it” and legitimize Cleopatra from mistress to Mrs.
Upon her return to Rome, Marc Antony and Octavius Caesar (Rachel Pfennigwerth) broker peace through familial marriage with her sister, Octavia. We glimpse Marc Antony’s mindset when York mutters, “marriage for peace, make my way east for pleasure.” After all, Marc Antony was married before and was a lover to Cleopatra. This continuity is easy to rationalize for Marc Antony. However, Octavius’ willingness to accept the east/west split proves divisive.
Callee Miles is brilliant. She has a dual role as Cleopatra and Octavia Caesar, playing both Marc Antony’s lover and his wife. She is commandingly sultry as the queen Cleopatra, given to vast mood swings that her court must accommodate. Her petulance highlights a self-centered need for drama as Tober often directs her to stomp up the steps to her throne of an upholstered stool. Properties designer Samantha Kuchta hits the mark with limited but impactful, props for staging in the park.
Costume designer Ricky Lyle facilitates the transformation between the two characters. As Octavia, Miles wears an ankle-length burgundy sheath dress that limits her to short steps and keeps her body hidden. This look visually supports her shy, demure demeanor as she always keeps her eyes averted from Marc Antony.
Octavius is always dressed in cherry red, while Marc Antony is in blue. York demonstrates her dedication to the role with blue hair. Lyle visually represents her divided allegiance by costuming Octavia in an omnipresent burgundy (a mix of red and blue). She is both red and blue, yet neither.
Miles is fully her own woman as the “single lady” Cleopatra. She brashly sits with legs wide open, draped in a creamy diaphanous skirt and strappy cropped tank top with an array of ever-changing gold jewelry that symbolizes her wealth and drapes across her cleavage for attention. She steals the show, the queen that she is, and she knows it.
TICKETS AND DETAILS
Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks’ Cleopatra & Antony runs through September 24, 2023. Seek this stunning outdoor performance each weekend in a different outdoor location (Highland Park, Westinghouse Park, and The Frick).
While there is no admission fee, donations are both welcomed and necessary to ensure season 20 from this non-profit. Or, to quote Shakespeare himself, “They do not love that do not show their love.” Learn more and donate online at https://www.pittsburghshakespeare.com/cleopatra/.