Laurel company uses Bard’s trick to save ‘Antony & Cleopatra’

Thursday, Oct. 12, 2006

The production of ‘‘Antony and Cleopatra” coming to the Greenbelt Arts Center this Thursday through Saturday takes its cue from the idea that actors are not always acting when they put on a play.

Laurel’s Rude Mechanicals are staging William Shakespeare’s work as a performance by a troupe of theater stereotypes whose personalities match those of the characters they portray. A ‘‘disaffected star” plays Antony, an ‘‘aging diva” plays Cleopatra, and so forth. Identifying with their roles, the actors get emotionally caught up in the play and its outcome. The production does not give the imagined actors any new dialogue, but they remain on stage in between their scenes, watching and reacting to the other characters.

As a result, the audience gets a better glimpse into the nature of their personalities — or so director Jaki Demarest hopes. The staging is designed to save the characters from drowning a storyline that has made performances of ‘‘Antony and Cleopatra” unpopular through the play’s 400-year history.

‘‘What we’re working with here is the fact that ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ structurally falls apart almost completely by its end,” she said. ‘‘There’s nothing there to save it, nothing there to tie it together in the end.”

Length is also a problem. Performances can run close to 6 hours.

But in the middle of the mess are ‘‘central characters who are unsympathetic but remarkably complex. They’re compelling. In spite of the fact that you don’t quite like them, you’re drawn to them.”

The Rude Mechanicals did not set out to rewrite Shakespeare, but they would like audiences to come away with a different perspective on one of his most neglected plays.

‘‘Rather than trying to solve the problem what we’re doing is exploring it and saying, ‘What happens to this group of actors when they commit themselves to this play that utterly and completely falls apart?’” Demarest said.

She also cut out the play’s many side stories and subplots, bringing its running time down to around two hours.

‘‘It’s definitely the sort of thing to go into without any sort of expectation, good or bad,” said Arthur Rowan, who plays Octavius. ‘‘What Jaki has done is very different ... from any production of ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ that I’ve seen and most Shakespeare that I’ve seen.”

Of course, the play within a play appears throughout Shakespeare, and Demarest got the idea for this production from several passages in ‘‘Antony and Cleopatra” that allude to the concept.

But the Rude Mechanicals have a reputation for challenging Shakespearean convention and having a little fun in the process, and this time is no different. They have advertised this show as ‘‘Snakes in a Play” and turned one scene into what Amy Rauch, who plays Cleopatra, describes as a ‘‘full-blown, Geraldo-style catfight” between her character and Octavia.

So there seems to be something tongue-in-cheek about Demarest’s use of the familiar play within a play, especially given the premise that the play’s temperamental, dysfunctional characters are reflections of the actors playing them.

‘‘This one really is an actors’ show,” she said. ‘‘We get to have fun, we get to laugh at ourselves a bit.”

Of course, this does not mean that stereotypes such as the ‘‘aging ingénue” or the ‘‘lazy actor” are caricatures of the real people putting on the play. In the broadest sense, Demarest’s self-absorbed characters might be seen as a reference to the world of celebrity acting.

‘‘I’ve never worked with anyone like my character,” Rauch said about preparing for the role of Cleopatra’s aging diva. ‘‘But I can certainly imagine it. You see a lot of the things that happen out in the world of Hollywood and theater on a more professional level ... I took a lot of it from tabloids and talk shows.”

Demarest, on the other hand, was able to bring personal experience to bear in coming up with the production.

‘‘In part, every one of these archetypes goes back to something or someone in my head — someone that I’ve worked with over the years,” she said. ‘‘I had people in mind when I started casting this.”

But, she is very quick to add, none of them are in the current production.