The age-old Shakespearean play “Antony and Cleopatra” is a classic, having been presented by companies both professional and amateur. But one expects something special when the Folger Shakespeare Theatre Library presents a play by the Bard, and its production of “Antony and Cleopatra,” running through Nov. 19, does not disappoint.
Ushering the audience into the theater-in-the-round — the authentic staging for a Shakespeare play — the sound of a raucous post-Elizabethan era audience is played through the venue’s speakers, transporting the viewer back in time.
The opening scene, resplendent with lavish costumes and Egyptian music, introduces us to a commanding Queen Cleopatra (Shirine Babb) following her tryst with Julius Caesar and during the pinnacle of her historic love affair with Roman general and ruler Mark Antony (Cody Nickell), who rules Rome alongside Octavius Caesar (Nigel Gore) and Lepidus (Robbie Gay).
While there is no need to recount the renowned story of politics and love, both ending in tragedy, this production, directed by Robert Richmond, recognizes the cultural realities of Egypt with Cleopatra and her ladies-in-waiting Iras (Nicole King, who also plays Caesar’s sister Octavia) and Charmian (Simoné Elizabeth Bart) as women of color.
“Within the epic scope of ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ are hidden layers of intimacies and vulnerabilities,” Richmond said. “In this production, we will make private, public — and examine what went on behind closed doors of the world’s most powerful people. The ‘up close and personal’ staging of the redesigned Folger Theater will gain us an intimate understanding of the titular characters, revealing their passion and pain.”
And the steamy passion between the two powerful lovers is palpable and intriguing, as this production interweaves dance, music and innovative, though spare, costuming against an almost bare stage, save for a few props representing the queen’s bed and seating occasionally used.
For a woman of color to play the leading lady in a Shakespeare production may not be common, but to lead actress Babb, it is nothing new. The native New Yorker has taken on many a leading lady role, but she has always loved playing Cleopatra, this being her third production in the role.
“My desire has always been to play 3-dimensional characters,” Babb said. “The more complex they are, the more of a challenge it is for me, and the more of a journey I look forward to taking with those kinds of characters. I don’t know if you can get any more complex than Cleopatra.
“The first time I played her, I was very young and kind of green to the industry,” she said. “But I was a classically trained actress so it was a major challenge for me to even tackle the language for the first time. The second time, it was more about the space and the director I had an opportunity to work with.”
Since then, Babb has acted in “Julius Caesar,” “The Tempest,” “Twelfth Night” and “Measure for Measure,” to name a few.
“Exploring what it was like to find the different colors and levels of this woman is what I aimed for this time around,” she said. “There is a sense of maturity and more enjoyment playing her, and trying to be as human with her. People see her as an icon and forget she is a real person.”
Acknowledging that “Antony and Cleopatra” is a complex play, as it is one of Shakespeare’s more mature plays (originally produced in 1606-1607), Babb has taken on Lady Macbeth, Isabella and Olivia, a few of Shakespeare’s leading ladies.
“I never have gone into an audition process seeing myself as a woman of color playing this for the first time,” she said. “I just go in knowing this is a role I want to play. As a result of that, I have been cast in that way leading a major production. I’ve had this discussion before with my other actor friends of color, but the moment I go into a room saying I am a woman of color playing this role, in a way, I am telling them this is an exceptional moment. And it is not. I should be playing this role regardless.”
“Antony and Cleopatra” plays through Nov. 19 at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre Library (201 East Capitol Street SE). For more information, call 202-544-7077 or go to folger.edu.