LENOX -- Let's just cut to the chase here. Tina Packer is absolutely magnificent as Cleopatra.
Any argument that the artistic director of Shakespeare & Company was arrogantly taking on a role she was too old for must simply fall away before Michael Hammond's powerful, passionate staging of "Antony and Cleopatra" -- and Packer's even more powerful and passionate performance at its center.
No, Packer is not young. But neither is Cleopatra, as Shakespeare's text frequently reminds us -- and, unlike our own youth-obsessed culture, neither the queen nor her creator sees a woman's maturity as an impediment to her seductive power.
When Cleopatra mentions her "salad days," she's not lamenting her lost youth, as wistful moderns might; she's mocking her younger self for being "green in judgment, cold in blood." Shakespeare's Cleopatra is a tastier dish than any starlet, not least because she's well seasoned.
Who better to play her, then, than a woman who herself has lived long and well? And, age aside, Packer displays the infinite variety that the role demands. By turns coquettish and majestic, giddy with love and blind with rage, Cleopatra must persuade us that she is at once superhumanly strong and humanly vulnerable. Part of her charm lies in its elusiveness, in her quicksilver darting from private passion to public power and back again.
All this Packer gives us, with the energetic warmth, exquisitely tuned vocal shadings, and great good humor that are her hallmarks. Onstage, Packer seems completely alive -- and that radiant vitality, above all, is what gives her Cleopatra an ageless beauty.
In Nigel Gore's Marc Antony, she has a formidable match. Gore, too, is seasoned; his Antony is a soldier still, but weary and battle-scarred. In love, too, he has waged many a campaign, and one pleasure of Gore's subtle and textured portrayal is Antony's amused surprise at finding himself, at his age, head over heels. The lovers' maturity is essential if we are to feel the pain of their inability to control the immaturity, the childish impetuosity and bad judgment, that will lead to their doom.
Hammond's incisive direction rightly keeps our focus on the rapid emotional shifts of this relationship, which can sometimes drown in the swirling political currents with which Shakespeare surrounds it. The production's tight three-hour text, developed by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, preserves but does not wallow in the complex power struggles between Egypt and Rome.
Hammond also has a firm hand on the tiller as the play's dizzying array of settings sweeps us across the globe. Carl Sprague's elegantly minimal set helps keep things clear, with ostrich-plumed standards for the Egyptian scenes replaced by colorful bannered ones for Rome -- and then, as the Romans splinter into rival factions, with each faction getting a color of its own.
As for Egypt, Bill Barclay gives it a haunting musical atmosphere, and Sprague and costume designer Arthur Oliver swathe it richly in silks of dazzling beauty and variety. The lush fertility of the Nile blooms in Cleopatra's jewel-toned robes and in the pillows and scarves that drape her boudoir; no wonder Antony couldn't resist. Hammond uses the silks brilliantly as the action progresses; they sometimes bind the lovers, sometimes veil intrigues, sometimes serve as whips both playful and punitive. And, when at last we arrive in the fatal monument, the soft cloth falls away to reveal hard stone.
It's here that we finally realize how skillfully the production has built toward its tragic end. Hammond has channeled a sprawling epic into a fluidly coherent story, aided by a uniformly excellent cast -- particularly Tony Molina's eerie Soothsayer, Craig Baldwin's supercilious Caesar, and two fine royal confidants, Christianna Nelson's lithe Charmian and Walton Wilson's beautifully rough-hewn Enobarbus. When a final, magical effect transforms the scene once more, we are left as Enobarbus tells us Cleopatra leaves her men: utterly satisfied, yet still hungry for more.