Monday, June 18, 2012

Stacy Schiff, Cleopatra and the goodie bag

By Alicia Antead
OHA Critic-in-Residence

Stacy Schiff's book "Cleopatra: A Life" is a sweepingly imaginative biography of one of the most captivating and ubiquitous historical figures who ever lived. Cleopatra VII was wealthy, cunning, charismatic, sexually expressed and politically powerful. The portrait Schiff paints in her nonfiction book, however, is different from the queen Shakespeare portrays theatrically in "Antony and Cleopatra." Schiff, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, has said Cleopatra's subjects thought of her as a goddess and generally compares her not to Sarah Palin or Hillary Clinton but to Oprah. As for Shakespeare, Cleopatra comes after Gertrude, Portia and Lady Macbeth -- though it's doubtful many would refer to her as Shakespeare's most compelling female character. Schiff's 2010 book -- a Best Book of the Year in the New York Times Book Review -- will be the focus of a public discussion 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 20. (Reservations required.) The writer agreed to answer a few questions in conjunction with the book discussion and the Stonington Opera House production of "Antony and Cleopatra" running July 12-22 at the Burnt Cove Church in Stonington, Maine.

Since Shakespeare's kittenish portrayal of Cleopatra doesn't match your portrayal of a tactically powerful and intelligent queen, is there any way to correct the myth that Shakespeare hands an actor? 
Shakespeare plundered the historical sources completely and plotted brilliantly; in the case of "A&C" he lifted whole passages from Plutarch, which had just been translated into English. Shakespeare had no intention of correcting the historical record -- that's not what art is for -- and I don't think we should have any intention of correcting him. A lot has been written (a lot I haven't read has been written, I might add) on how an Elizabethan playwright approached women and women in power. It is interesting that Shakespeare was writing at the time of a female monarch and still leaves us a kittenish Cleopatra. In any event, I prefer his kitten queen to G.B. Shaw's
Stacy Schiff
PHOTO: Elena Seibert

What quality in Cleopatra would you most like to see exhumed today?
Two things impress me over and over about Cleopatra. The first is how she marches ahead without being hindered by her gender. Twice she lives in all-male military camps; she surrounded herself with male courtiers; she plays by Roman rules, which made for a very male game. She acknowledges her gender -- she has that gift for having children after all, and at the most opportune times -- but doesn't seem constrained by motherhood or femininity. She's also utterly, invariably accommodating. That's true both in her approach to her subjects, for whom she manipulates the imagery and the mission statements, and with the Romans, where she adjusts her loyalties nimbly and gracefully. There's no grandstanding and no gridlock. She's a master of opportunity and of compromise. One more thing I might add: A little charisma goes a long way. She was an inveterate charmer, at least when she wanted to be.

What would you most like to witness if you could go back in time and hang out in Cleopatra's world?
Any number of people have told me, on reading the book, that they want to move to Hellenistic Alexandria. I do, too. I'd like to walk down the streets of the perfume district. Ideally one would want to witness a Ptolemaic feast, as Cleopatra's family invented and dominated the hospitality business; wretched excess was their specialty. And you especially wanted a goodie bag, the horse or furniture or golden goblet with which the lucky guest headed home. 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Ten Reasons to Love Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra"

OHA Critic-in-Residence

Every time I read Shakespeare – and by “read” I mean drop myself imaginatively into the world of the characters – the play I’m reading becomes my favorite. As I direct my attention to the Stonington Opera House annual Shakespeare festival, my new favorite play is “Antony and Cleopatra.” (Move over “Coriolanus,” which was my favorite play last month.) I’m a little fickle that way – never landing definitively on any one of the Bard’s plays as a favorite for very long. It’s a little like trying to choose a favorite child: You shouldn’t do it because it lessens the value of the other kids. And in Shakespeare’s case, that’s upwards of 40 plays.

The best approach for me is to fall in love with a play every time I read it.

In an effort to get you to fall in love with “Antony and Cleopatra” – assuming you need a nudge – I’m sharing my Top Ten Reasons for Loving “Antony and Cleopatra.” The Stonington Opera House production of “Antony and Cleopatra” runs July 12-22 at the Burnt Cove Church in Stonington. But keep checking back here at Shake Stonington for interviews with Stacy Schiff, whose biography “Cleopatra” will be the focus of a book discussion June 20, for interviews with actors and scholars, and for more commentary and conversation about the play.

My Top Ten Reasons for Loving “Antony and Cleopatra”

1.     Cleopatra is hot. She’s got it all: money, power, sex, a great hairstyle. She's my new favorite historical character. 
2.     Antony is a real dude. He loves his woman, loves war and says crazy-sexy things to his lover like: “What sport to-night?” I know, I know: He's not such a great husband. And if he were, we'd have no drama. 
3.     Passion rules. These characters go for it every time – not just the leads but everyone. Even the servants. Things going badly for the master? I’ll kill myself, too. To the death!
4.     Morals be damned. Adultery never looked so appealing. It doesn’t end well. (Does it ever?) But Antony and Cleopatra are having a great time together. And it’s fun while it lasts.  
5.     Where are we now? A&C has 42 scenes. That’s more than any other of Shakespeare’s plays. The distance between Rome and Egypt has never been so easy to traverse.
6.     The fake death trick. It didn’t work for Romeo and Juliet, and it doesn’t work for Antony and Cleopatra either. But it’s fun to see Shakespeare still rolling out the technique. You can almost hear Cleopatra say: “Oh crap! What have I done now?”
7.     Watch out for the snake. [Spoiler alert!] Is that a European asp or an Egyptian asp? (With apologies to Monty Python.) Rumor has it that Opera House Arts is hiring a live snake for Cleopatra’s famous death-by-snake-bite scene. Only Cleopatra could have the cojones to share the stage with an animal -- and not get upstaged. 
8.     Middle-age star power. At the time of this play, both Antony and Cleopatra are middle-aged. Are they slowing down? Hell no! (They die in the end, but what a way to go.)
9.     If it's a tragedy, why am I laughing? The play has a structural similarity to Shakespeare’s comedies (flipping between Rome and Egypt is similar to flipping between the court and the forest, duty and freedom). And then there’s Enobarbus. The guy cracks me up. Plus he's deep.
10. The poetry rocks. Shakespeare had already written "Hamlet," "King Lear" and "Macbeth" by the time he wrote "Antony and Cleopatra." His poetry chops are hot.