War and empire-building are two things that Nicole Galland mentions when describing the themes of Shakespeare’s play “Antony and Cleopatra.” She completes that summary with the phrase: “And crazy, narcissistic, manipulative world leaders.”
Sound familiar? Well, like all of the work of the world’s most famous playwright, the historically based play deals in timeless, universal themes, which is one of the things that Galland loves about Shakespeare. And with “Antony and Cleopatra,” the work that she and Chelsea McCarthy will be presenting as a reading as part of the Shakespeare for the Masses series next weekend, the thing that surprises her the most is that the story sticks very closely to the historical record.
“As we were working on the script, we would think, I wonder what they really did?” Galland explains. “It’s hard to believe that people were so maleficent and over-the-top and still functioned as rulers, but they did.”
For over a decade now, the co-creators have been abridging, augmenting with narrative, and, of course, having fun with the works of the bard. Their goal is to bring Shakespeare to those unfamiliar with his work, as well as to simply entertain diehard fans, while also hopefully sparking people’s interest enough to inspire them to further explore the plays and/or the history they portray.
“Antony and Cleopatra” has proven to be quite a challenge for McCarthy and Galland. Although they previously presented the play in the early days of SFTM, they have learned a few tricks since then. “We’ve trimmed it up a bit,” says Galland. “We’ve learned a lot about the most efficient and funny way to tell a story.”
In the case of “Antony and Cleopatra, the Shakespeare for the Masses team has quite a story to tell. The play is an epic that spans multiple locations and time periods. “This is the one play that is so complicated that simply having hats and banners doesn’t work,” says Galland. “So we actually have a map and a list of characters. Chelsea is in charge of the visual aids.”
The plot, which is based on the ancient Greek historical text “Plutarch’s Lives,” chronicles 10 years of struggles in the Roman Empire as told through the story of the tempestuous relationship between Roman general Mark Antony and Egypt’s ruler Cleopatra. The action moves between Rome, Alexandria, and Egypt, and incorporates many twists and turns, alliances and betrayals, war and romance. As written, the epic play utilizes 34 distinct characters. “It’s just a huge, sprawling play,” says Galland. “It’s like a miniseries compressed into a play.”
Of course, Galland and McCarthy will have to further compress the text to fit the performance into a timeframe of just over an hour. “I think we’ve figured out how to really streamline the work,” says Galland. “We used to be preoccupied with making sure absolutely as much of the original story was included, but really our job is to make the story as engaging as possible, even if that means cutting entire scenes. A decade ago we were really worshipful, in a way that we aren’t so much anymore.”
Reprising their roles from the earlier production will be Mac Young as Antony, Amy Barrow as Cleopatra, and Molly Purves as the principal antagonist, Octavius Caesar. The other roles will be taken on by various longtime members of the SFTM troupe.
Barrow is excited to be revisiting the part of Cleopatra. “Getting to know her again after a decade is a gift,” says the actress and educator. “It’s one of those roles that I’ve always wanted to take another crack at, especially now since I’ve had a decade’s worth of life experience. Cleopatra is one of Shakespeare’s more well-developed characters. She’s complex, she’s complicated. It’s easy to love her or hate her, but either way she’s exhausting.”
“Antony and Cleopatra” is variously classified as one of Shakespeare’s history plays or as a tragedy. However, there is also humor to be found in the text, and in the hands of the SFTM team, there are sure to be many funny moments. “The productions always end up being fun, even the most tragic of tragedies,” says Barrow. “We’re trying to make Shakespeare accessible and palatable.”
And, of course, the story is one of the greatest romances of all time. “At heart, I do think it’s a love story, even with all of the political machinations,” says Barrow. “It reminds me of that sort of frantic high school romance.”
“Antony and Cleopatra,” Shakespeare for the Masses, Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 1 and 2, 7 pm on Saturday and 2 pm on Sunday, at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse.