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Shakespeare Ensemble presents 'Antony and Cleopatra'

Roman military leader and triumvir Marc Antony romanced the Egyptian queen Cleopatra more than 2,000 years ago. Shakespeare dramatized their tragic love story almost 400 years ago. But until now, in its entire 28-year history, the MIT Shakespeare Ensemble had never staged the classic play, "Antony and Cleopatra." The production, presented "in the round," opens tomorrow night (March 13) in Student Center's La Sala de Puerto Rico.

Combining actual events and people from Roman history with a love story of its title characters, the play shifts between Cleopatra's palace in Alexandria and Rome and contains two major battlefield sequences. The large number of cast members (33-plus officers, soldiers, messengers and other attendants) may be one reason the show had never before been presented by the MIT ensemble.

Director Su Schwenk, a Davis Scholar at Wellesley College, solves this challenge by presenting the play through the means of a chorus in which the company of actors comments on the action in a classical Greek play. This device allows almost every actor, except for those in the title roles, to play five or six characters. "The chorus, while helping to tell the story, is also watching, interpreting and judging the actions of the title characters," said cast member Lisa Messeri, a junior in aeronautics and astronautics. By setting the show in the round, the audience also becomes part of this group of observers, she added.

While the main characters are familiar to many, the Shakespeare Ensemble tries to dispel audience preconceptions about them. "It's really hard to predict what people know about the characters," said Messeri, who plays Enobarbus, Antony's right-hand man and eventual betrayer. "I think it's often thought that Cleopatra betrayed the great Antony and thus she's the bad guy," she said. "But this production looks to make no one person the villain or the hero."

"The character of Cleopatra is enormously complex," said freshman Stephanie Cavagnaro-Wong, who, in addition to her starring role as the Egyptian queen, is costume and set construction coordinator. "A lot of people think of her as an Egyptian slut, but I would disagree. Cleopatra was extremely intelligent, talented and independent; she was able to be a brilliant and powerful woman in an age dominated by men. That's all combined with her tremendous love for Antony. Even though she's obviously very smart, she makes some bad decisions where her love for Antony or for her country blinds her."

In addition to performing what is, for them, a new work, the ensemble is working from the First Folio edition of Shakespeare's play, a new experience for most of the cast. "We've spent much time focusing closely on the text and bringing out all of Shakespeare's innuendo," said Messeri.

According to dramaturg Matthew Lehar, who's also playing Octavius Caesar, the main textual differences between the First Folio and modern editions are the occasional Middle English holdovers. Lehar, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, feels that the original language preserves subtle ambiguities of character and emotions--such as the mixed feelings that Octavius Caesar has towards Antony, who was once his hero and is now his enemy.

Costume and scenic designs for the production combine modern pieces with period elements. For their inspiration, members of the cast and design team visited the Egyptian and Roman collections at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. "We immersed ourselves in those rooms for a couple of hours, which really has set the mood," said Messeri.

Performances are March 13-15 and 20-22 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $8, or $6 for students; call 253-2903 or e-mail

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 12, 2003.

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