Friday, June 29, 2012

Cleopatra the Superstar

I've conducted enough book discussions in Maine and elsewhere to know the show-up rate can be discouraging in rural areas especially in summer, especially in the evening. Imagine my surprise when more than 20 locals showed up, however, to discuss Stacy Schiff's biography "Cleopatra: A Life" last week in Stonington. What? Not even Shakespeare himself has drawn that many fans to a book gathering in my time of working with Opera House Arts and its annual Shakespeare production.

But this group was ready to rock. Most of the participants read the book or some part of it or were preparing to read it before the production of "Antony and Cleopatra," which opens July 12 at the Stonington Opera House. Many appreciated the impressive details in the biography. Some found them tedious. We grappled with the grey areas that imaginative biographies exist in: What can we really know about Cleopatra since the source material is so scant? What leeway does a biographer have with the facts? Where do fact and fiction meet in a biography?

In the end, however, it was clear that the attraction -- to the book and the play -- was the merging of legend and reality. Who among us didn't imagine walking down the main boulevard of Alexandria in Cleopatra's day or seeing her barge on the Nile or witnessing her unapologetically blatant glory in affairs with two married men? It was Cleopatra who drew this crowd. They wanted to talk about her, think about her, imagine her, exhume her.

And why? She's a strong woman who lived in a time when a woman could be the richest person in the world, when she could unflinchingly and unquestioned play politics alongside men. And that's not all.

This year's "Antony and Cleopatra" has a superstar, and the book group proved it. Cleopatra is one of the Top Ten Most Famous Women in History -- one ahead of Joan of Arc and second only to Mother Theresa, whom Shakespeare surely would have figured out a way to dramatize had he been born 400 years later. Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, Mother Theresa: There's a lineup for you. They are women who didn't validate barriers, who did't recognize "no" (unless they were the ones saying it) and who changed the world through both action and iconography (or, as we call it today, branding).

It did not escape anyone's notice that most participants in the book discussion were women. (Only two men.) Yes, women are big readers. But they are also -- all these years later -- still looking for role models -- and Cleopatra, though not admired by everyone in our group, is a powerful one when it comes to politics, leadership and -- some might argue -- sexual liberation and strategy. She was a superstar in life. She's a superstar in legend. And I'm pretty confident she's going to be a superstar on the stage at the Stonington Opera House.