Merely Players presents classical Shakespearean tragedy

Merely Players, Vassar’s Shakespeare-focused theater group, presented “Antony and Cleopatra” in the Mug last week, a fraught historical drama full of high emotion and stark characterizations. Courtesy of Katie Scibelli
Merely Players, Vassar’s Shakespeare-focused theater group, presented “Antony and Cleopatra” in the Mug last week, a fraught historical drama full of high emotion and stark characterizations. Courtesy of Katie Scibelli
Merely Players, Vassar’s Shakespeare-focused theater group, presented “Antony and Cleopatra” in the Mug last week, a fraught historical drama full of high emotion and stark characterizations. Courtesy of Katie Scibelli

“Antony and Cleopatra,” one of Shakespeare’s many classics, was performed this weekend in the Mug by Merely Players, Vassar’s only stu­dent theater organization dedicated solely to the production of classical theater and Shakespeare. With shows on Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, the Mug was crammed each evening as Vassar students congregated for an enthralling performance of this famous tragedy. The play was directed by Max Fine ’17, with Henry McKenzie ’18 starring as Mark Antony, one of the three rulers of the Roman Empire, and Xiangyi Tan ’17 playing the beautiful Egyptian queen Cleopatra.

Set in 40 B.C.E., “Antony and Cleopatra” begins several years after “Julius Caesar.” The visual look of the set was inspired by post-World War II Ger­many—a white sheet hangs in the background cov­ered with slogans and graffiti that lend context to the play. Mark Antony, Octavius Caesar and Lepi­dus have formed the Second Triumvirate and rule over the Roman Empire, though Antony spends the majority of his time in Egypt having an affair with Cleopatra. Both McKenzie and Tan captured the essence of these eternal characters from the moment they introduce them—Antony was de­picted as charming and amicable, while Cleopatra was spirited and combative, sporting regal attire and a feisty attitude. Their love affair was depicted as both passionate and tender from the very begin­ning, where both McKenzie and Tan shared a great dynamic as a stage duo.

Fine, the director, explained his reasoning for proposing the idea of producing “Antony and Cleo­patra.” He explicated, “‘Antony and Cleopatra’ is not as commonly performed as other Shakespear­ean plays like ‘Hamlet’ or ‘King Lear’ because it is very long. For it to be performed, especially to an audience of college students, I had to cut it severe­ly. So I’ve been editing and condensing the script since January to adapt it for a Vassar audience’s viewership. But I was willing to do so because the play has a lot of fascinating and complex charac­ters that I wanted to explore.” Stage Manager Katie Scibelli ’19 added, “The character developments are really interesting. Even the minor characters have pretty thorough arcs.”

Fine then elaborated on the reason for giving the minor characters a lot of importance in the play: “I wanted to foster a more ensemble-type feeling. I really wanted a team that would work together such that everyone felt included and felt like they could contribute. I definitely think that was a great decision. It’s been really nice to come in and work with this group of people every night. They possess a tremendous level of talent that I’ve been excited about ever since we cast them.” Scibelli drove this point home. “We have a lot of new talent working hard on this production, some of them freshmen, some of them students who have never taken part in theater before, and so it’s really exciting to see all this diverse talent at work.”

The plot begins to develop after Antony re­ceives news that Pompey, a relatively powerful man amongst the general population, is raising an army against the Triumvirate. Antony decides he must return to Rome and strengthen alliances with his other triumvir, Caesar, so that they have a greater chance of defeating Pompey. This initially proves to be difficult considering that Caesar has little respect for Antony because of all the time he spends in Egypt indulging his affair with Cleo­patra instead of doing his duties as a Roman rul­er. Thus, their relationship is quite strained. This tense dynamic was brought out well by McKenzie and Tabraiz Lodhi ’20—who plays Caesar—with McKenzie being easy-going and even patronizing, while Lodhi was of a stiff and unyielding temper­ament. However, the charming Antony agrees to marry Caesar’s sister Octavia in order to introduce familial ties that will dilute the animosity between them. The production team did a fine job depict­ing differences between Antony and Caesar, with both wearing uniforms that signify their high mili­tary ranks. Antony’s white uniform contrasted with Caesar’s navy blue one, further making the dispari­ty between these triumvirs as clear as day.

In Egypt, Cleopatra hears of Antony’s marriage and is positively livid. Already quite an aggressive character, she is driven into a jealous rage by this news. Tan’s incredible acting flawlessly conveyed the sheer wrath of a beautiful and powerful queen. Meanwhile, Antony and Caesar form a truce with Pompey and engage in an evening of drunken fes­tivities to celebrate, infusing this classical tragedy with a tinge of comedy. However, once Antony departs for his honeymoon with Octavia, Caesar violates the truce and attacks Pompey’s camp. An­gered, Antony returns to Egypt and begins to raise an army and navy against Caesar. He makes the love-struck decision to let Cleopatra command one of the ships, and, in a later battle, employs her help as well. Both times the Egyptian fleets abscond and Antony becomes convinced that Cleopatra is dis­loyal and vows to kill her. McKenzie did a fabulous job in depicting the emotions of anger and pain that come with a lover’s betrayal.

Out of fear, Cleopatra locks herself in her mon­ument and sends word to Antony that she has committed suicide. Overcome by grief, Antony decides to kill himself and join his lover. Cleopat­ra enters the scene in Antony’s dying minutes and despairingly cradles him in her arms. They share a poignant moment before he dies. Echoing the same quality that countless doomed lovers share throughout the history of Shakespearean tragedies, Cleopatra eventually kills herself as well using poi­sonous snakes and is buried by Caesar beside her eternal love, Mark Antony.

Lodhi elucidated his personal feelings towards the play, encapsulating some of its most striking elements: “To do a successful Shakespeare play, it’s not enough to just say the lines because the audi­ence may not always understand the [language]. So to connect to them, a lot of emotion needs to come through in one’s acting and manner of delivery, which is something I think the cast really excelled at. Additionally, my favorite thing about the play is that it is a medley of tragedy, comedy and social commentary. The director, Max, did a great job with sprinkling this drama with comic relief, while still maintaining some of Antony’s most powerful scenes. The variety of scenes is commendable, from a drunken party, to a sword fight, to a naval battle with cannons. The sheer amount of diverse elements we managed to integrate is of course all thanks to the production team.”

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