Sunday, July 22, 2012

And in the end: We are hungry where we are most satisfied

Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra" is not the kind of play that ends after the lights come up and you head out from the theater into the world. It charts a story somewhere between earthly power and godly glory -- and it's impossible to be anything other than awed by its navigation of these worlds. But what is it exactly that makes a play -- or any work of art -- have staying power?

I'm sure the scholars and philosophers of the world can answer that question more eruditely than I. In fact, my own measure of the impact of a work of art is distinctly un-erudite. It's simply this: Does the storytelling continue -- infiltrate your personal thoughts and conversations well after the performance has ended?

For this play, my answer is a resounding yes. And that was true even before I saw the Stonington Opera House production of "Antony and Cleopatra" at the Burnt Cove Church on Deer Isle, Maine. It happened to me in the library reads with the community, when citizen actors dove into the text, querying its lines, marveling at its characters.

But the story kept growing for me. After seeing director Craig Baldwin's production, I recreated the opening scene to no fewer than three people in a week. It went like this: So the audience was outside, and the cast, minus Cleopatra, came over the crest of a hill in the neighboring cemetery, and the company members were singing church music and wearing choral robes, and they escorted us into the church through a installation of funereal kitsch such as fake flowers and plastic crucifixes, and inside was Cleopatra lying on her stomach naked cooing to a three-foot live python in her hands, and when we were all seated, she stood up, put the snake in a cage and pulled the sheet she had been lying on into a halter dress around her body -- except it wasn't a sheet, it was the Egyptian flag.

All three times, the listeners met my description with gasps.

But it didn't end there. I also found myself telling the entire story to both a 9-year-old girl and a theater buddy who hadn't read the play since high school. They both listened with rapt attention -- and when we were interrupted, for instance by the car's GPS giving audio directions -- they were the ones asking me to continue telling the plot. I found myself loving the story more and more with each re-telling of it.

For reasons I can't quite explain, the ephemeral nature of performance fascinated me with "Antony and Cleopatra." It could be that I was acutely aware that the characters are based on real people and real experiences, and history was writ large in the physicality of the performance. It could be that Shakespeare's language is so very poetic and rich in this play -- I texted whole passages to friends -- that I wondered deeply about where poetry lives when it's not being performed.

And now that it's over, the responsibility for and revelation within the production's life slides toward us, the audience. This is where the very fine creative team at OHA -- including the actors, designers, directors and administrators -- steps out of the picture, and the rest of us step into the picture. "Antony and Cleopatra" belongs to us now, and it did the second the performers crested that hill in the cemetery.

What do we take away though? The best performances nudge me to think about my own life -- how my great love affairs have influenced my actions just as Antony's and Cleopatra's did theirs (albeit on a much grander and more global scale), how my tempers play a role in how I treat people and how deeply I respect loyalty and the challenges to it. Here, I am thinking not of Antony and Cleopatra, but of Antony's compatriot Enobarus, who is so broken by Antony's downfall and his own disloyalty that he kills himself.

The best performances also spur us to think about our public lives, and in an election year, "Antony and Cleopatra" offers much information about posturing, branding, best practices and the world behind the scenes of political success and destruction. But also about the role of women in politics -- and in society -- and the worlds and wiles they have to understand.

"Cleopatra is Shakespeare's greatest role for women," a respected Shakespeare scholar recently told me. I believe that. I remember not so long ago in my 30s when I first read Jane Austen. I was an English major in college and graduate school but somehow never got around to reading "Pride and Prejudice." Of course, I fell in love with the book and with Elizabeth Bennett, and I lamented that Austen's and Elizabeth's voices weren't in my head earlier in life to empower me in all the ways great writers and characters do.

Now, there's Cleopatra and Antony -- I transpose their names on purpose even as Shakespeare gives us another order. Their voices and images are with us now, in our heads, in our communities in our collective and private experiences. Antony, the great warrior, statesman and lover. Cleopatra, the queen, the military strategist and a woman of such "infinite variety" that she "makes hungry where she most satisfies."

The play's the thing, Hamlet tells us in one of Shakespeare's other masterpieces. But the play is only one thing. Where it lives in us, where it goes now, is quite another thing.