In August, we went back to Michigan for ten days to remount Antony and Cleopatra. People often ask me what this means, so here’s the general idea:
A remount is when you get the band back together to do a production again. Often, some cast members aren’t available to return, so you sub in other actors. Sometimes, due to changes in venue or context, you have to change a few other things as well. But the idea is to make it as close to the original as you can. You might fix a handful of things that always bugged you, but the shape of the piece is the same.
The Rose is an Elizabethan-style playhouse on the campus of Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp, in Michigan. It’s similar to the Globe, although a little smaller. It isn’t a reconstruction of any specific theater, but incorporates elements from a few different ones. Most of the time, it’s used by campers. BUT twice each year, Pigeon Creek Shakespeare remounts a production from a previous season in a benefit performance for Blue Lake Public Radio.
For this performance, we had a special guest. Jim Warren, formerly the artistic director at the American Shakespeare Center, was with us for a few days. He came to our last two rehearsals, gave a preshow talk on the importance of these reconstruction spaces, and joined us for the company picnic the following day. I had a great time getting to know him better; although I did my MFA work at the ASC, Jim and I had not interacted much during my years there. My kids actually listened to and enjoyed his talk–they’ve been using “We are in Rome,” which he used as an example of “an early modern set change” as a punchline.
For this remount, we had four new cast members. We also had to change the costumes and music a good bit–the Blue Lake folks want everything to be Elizabethan. Scott Wright actually wrote two songs based on music from the period that fit my vision. I’m so impressed with him. In our original production, we cut the drinking song on Pompey’s boat. I don’t remember why I decided to do that (time, probably), but all of us agreed it was a mistake.
When Scott and I talked about the song last spring, I said, “I want it to be sort of sung, but also sort of chanty. Think about ‘We Will Rock You’–it has a tune, of sorts, but it’s also a shout.” He took this abstract direction and came up with a song that ramped up the party and got the audience stomping and clapping along.
Another thing I was impressed with was how much the acting changed. Shows change on tour–the cast learns things from performing. Actors grow and change as they work on other shows and develop their craft. I noticed so many shifts in the show that had nothing to do with me, but which moved it more toward completeness. Seraphina’s vocal work has massively improved since we worked together a year ago (and the company must have noticed this, too–she’s playing Viola in their Twelfth Night right now). Riley’s clarity of intention is so much better. I remember last spring telling him, “I want you to take everything you learned from Buckingham and put it into Octavius,” and he did that. I always found Kat’s portrayal of Enobarbus to be one of the most honest and least sentimental I’ve ever seen–but she brought more depth to it this summer. Scott Lange’s work had a turning point with Richard and he played Antony with more control and more grace this summer than last. Not that the character was controlled, in any sense–quite the opposite, most of the time–but that I could feel the actor’s sense of control in a new way, if that makes sense (it doesn’t, I don’t quite have the words for it). Katherine has always been a powerhouse, but she was more grounded in this show than I had seen her before. At certain moments, I felt like she was literally commanding the elements with sheer force of will.
The audience arrangement in that space is so fun to play with. There are three levels–the groundlings, standing in the pit or yard below the stage, then the first gallery, level with the stage, and the second gallery, one story up. This gives an intimate and public feeling to everything we do. When Antony is not quite dead, we had his followers bring him up through the yard and lift him onto the stage. Audience members were right there with him. Katherine and Scott were all the way at the downstage edge for their final goodbye. They had this beautiful, intimate moment–and also were entirely surrounded by other people.
Sometimes the audience is a public witness to an event–like in our Romeo and Juliet when Katherine, as Lady Capulet, was able to call on all of the people to support her in her desire for revenge (“Romeo slew Tybalt. Romeo must not live!”). At other times, they seem to be participating in and protecting the privacy of an event–as was the case when Romeo is leaving Juliet after their one night together. Somehow, in the moment when Antony died, they were doing both. It’s impossible to describe.
We used the whole space, too–messengers showed up on the platforms at the top of the stairs leading to the yard. Antony and Octavia’s last scene together was actually played in the yard, among the groundlings. There is, as Jim pointed out, zero evidence that Shakespeare’s company used the space in this way. If we were regularly performing at the Rose (!), I might use it in a more laboratory style, only doing what scholars believe the King’s Men actually did. But for a one-off performance, I decided to use the space as richly as possible.
The space is incredible. Seeing the shows in a space that is close to what they were written for is a phenomenal experience. The space changes the shows. Katherine said that Antony and Cleopatra was more changed by the space than most of the other shows we’ve remounted, and I agreed with her.
I remember watching it last summer and feeling like it still needed something, but I wasn’t sure what. The acting was amazing and I loved the design work we did. I never could quite place what else it needed, but it felt incomplete or unresolved. Watching a mid-week rehearsal at the Rose, I could hardly breathe, my whole body was so full of joy there wasn’t space for air. There were moments that felt like I had always imagined them.
One thing that I see in the photos that Chaz and I took that day is that someo of them look like paintings. When my plays look like that, I feel like I’m doing something right, compositionally. This one, for example, looks to me like a Renaissance painting. It has a fractal of triangles in the composition, repetition of color and motif, intimate detail and massive scale.
And then this one, when I show it to people, they say, “It looks like a Klimt,” and that makes me exceptionally happy because Klimt was a huge influence on the design of the whole thing. So to communicate that so clearly is a powerful win.
The first lines we hear Antony and Cleopatra speak are about love and geography, and about exploding through the limitations of physical space.
“I’ll set a bourne how far to be beloved.”
“Then must thou needs find out new heaven, new earth.”
That’s what we had at the Rose, and didn’t quite have before.
I am so proud of the touring work we do, of our ability to create a piece that can play in different configurations and carry these stories to communities that don’t have a big fancy playing space but can offer us a church or a 100-seat black box or a platform at a park. And yet, there is an undeniable magic in a space where the story can spread out its arms and breathe.
This picture is from a tour location, I believe it’s Seven Steps Up in Spring Lake. Some of my shows have felt exactly right in there. Duchess, for example, shares a great deal with A&C, but has a domestic scale that worked well with the tight intimacy of that space. A&C was knocking its elbows on the walls in there.
In the Rose, the sweep of the air drew out the elemental images in the language. The audience nearly encircled the playing space, in what I’ve long described as a gathering around the ancient hearth. That relationship felt more public and, with the groundlings right at the actors’ feet, more intimate. The multiple levels of stage and audience gave us new ability to play with rank, stage pictures, and intimacy.
Because Shakespeare wrote A&C late in his career, after his company had moved into the Blackfriars, we don’t actually know whether it was written for that smaller, more intimate space, or for the larger scale of the Globe. Having staged it in a “mini Globe”…I know. Not in any way that would stand up to scholarly scrutiny, but I have no doubt in my mind. The expansive language needs room to breathe. And so much of it is about nature and the elements. Surely Shakespeare wrote it knowing that the sounds and winds of the beautiful world would be part of the show.
I would love to tour this show to a space near my home in Virginia so that my community here could see it. I don’t feel like I’m done watching this play, or watching audiences experience it. But I also know that the Rose is an extraordinary space; maybe having it somewhere else would feel like a letdown. This is the first show I have done in a long time that feels complete. Ironic, since Scott recently told me that I’m relentless about the work, that “the work on any play is never done, even after the final performance.” Not that I wouldn’t do more if we had another month, but that the pieces all feel like they’re fitted into place. I can’t remember the last time I had a show where my “I’m not done with this” was “I’m not done watching and sharing this,” rather than, “I’m not done messing with this.” Maybe this is why I want my friends to see this show more than previous ones; I want to be able to show them what my own “done” looks like. Apparently I do “finish” things occasionally. But I do believe also that trying to recreate a sublime experience is nearly always a disappointment; maybe it’s best to just let this performance live in my memory, and move on to the next creation.
Some of my favorite people got to see it, anyway. It made a big impression on Petra and Silas. A few weeks later, Silas said, “I had a dream about A&C at the Rose. Katherine and the silks merged into one giant Cleopatra silk monster and nearly destroyed the Rose!” Petra keeps asking whether someone will write a sequel “that takes place in the world of the dead with all the Egyptian and Roman gods.” Sounds like a great play.
I love this show so much. I loved more than I would have thought possible last summer, and I love it even more now.
The Rose explodes through any bourne I ever could have set to love this play. It’s making me find out new heavens, new Earth.
- Charmian, et al: Kate Bode
- Agrippa, et al: Kaeleb Cogswell
- Eros, Lepidus, et al: Lauren Gibbard
- Enobarbus: Kat Hermes
- Octavia, et al: Brooke Heintz
- Iras, et al: Lauren Heyboer
- Antony: Scott Lange
- Cleopatra: Katherine Mayberry
- Menas, et al: Ashley Normand
- Octavius: Riley Van Ess
- Music Director, Pompey, et al: Scott Wright
- Dolabella, et al: Seraphina Zorn
- Fight Director: John Scritchfield
Photos by Chaz Albright and Aili Huber. More videos available on my clip reel.