Updated Tuesday, November 6, 2012 at 10:13 AM
The genius of William Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra" is that it captures the intimate end stages of a red-hot love affair, while also charting the affair's impact on a large portion of the ancient world.
Seattle Shakespeare Company's new production is the ensemble's first tango with the Egyptian queen Cleopatra (played by Amy Thone) and her besotted Roman general lover (Hans Altwies). While the SSC staging by John Langs is very impressive in some respects, it's disappointing in others. But the show is laudable for offering, locally, a rare, full-scale rendition of a fascinating classic.
This is one of the Bard's most sprawling and demanding history plays, temperamentally and scenically. It seesaws between Rome and Egypt, love and rage, domination and submission, feminine and masculine, hot lust and chilly resolve.
Many contradictions reside within Shakespeare's portrait of Cleopatra, who must beguile even at her most irritatingly manipulative, as the play opens with an Egyptian-style bacchanal.
The ancient historian Plutarch described this smart, seductive monarch as "irresistible" and "bewitching" in "all she said and did." In Thone's performance, that potent charm ebbs and flows rather erratically. Made up garishly (even for Cleopatra), and at times lit harshly, this accomplished Shakespeare veteran isn't entirely convincing as an uncanny enchantress whose obsession with Antony saps her own power to rule effectively, as well as his.
Like Thone, Altwies doesn't produce the vocal grandeur often associated with a text that is second only to "Romeo and Juliet" in its output of sensuous love poetry. But the strapping Altwies (Thone's husband) projects virile physical authority as a warrior frustrated by the ongoing battle between his arrogant head and conquered heart.
Langs cleverly stages the Egyptian passages in a big sandbox, decked out by designer Jennifer Zeyl as a beach party. What's more gripping is the action in the Roman court of Octavius Caesar, which unfolds on an austere, raised platform under Geoff Korf's white-hot lighting.
Darragh Kennan is splendid here as an ascetic, brilliantly strategic Caesar. He's like a cool, sharp blade, whose growing disdain for his opposite Antony's rash self indulgence slices through in his gestures, gaze and speech.
Dan Kremer as the wise and foolish elder statesman Lepidus and Charles Leggett as Antony's sardonic, wavering lieutenant Enobarbus also do sterling work, as does Mike Dooly as the adversarial Pompey. (The standoff between Pompey and Rome, and the drunken truce, are wonderfully tense.)
Another asset here: the battle scenes. Rather than the standard grunt-and-duel stage combat, they are ritual dances (choreographed by Mollye Maxner).
As some of the resourceful Langs' staging concepts work better than others, so do Pete Rush's costumes for Cleopatra and her entourage. But when the Egyptian gals don their black and gold finery in the end, they are suitably outfitted for a fateful date with a famous reptile.
'Antony and Cleopatra'By William Shakespeare. Produced by Seattle Shakespeare Company. Through Nov. 18 at Intiman Playhouse, Seattle Center. $27-$40 (206-733-8222 or seattleshakespeare.org).
Terri Weagant, left, Amy Thone and Allison Strickland in "Antony and Cleopatra," staged by Seattle Shakespeare Company.