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Stages

Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, a Plum role

Actress took time to research part

Paula Plum stars with James Andreassi in Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s “Antony and Cleopatra.’’ Paula Plum stars with James Andreassi in Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s “Antony and Cleopatra.’’ (J. Stratton Mccrady)
By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / April 22, 2011

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The first time actress Paula Plum prepared a monologue for an audition, she chose Cleopatra’s death scene from Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra.’’ She was a student at St. Mary’s high school in Lynn, trying to win a role in a school play.

“I figured if you were going to audition, you should probably include death,’’ Plum says. “I remember rehearsing it in front of my hallway mirror.’’

The audition got her the part. Now Plum tackles Cleopatra again, in an Actors’ Shakespeare Project production that she initiated, at the Modern Theatre Wednesday through May 21.

Her approach to the part has changed in the years since that audition, perhaps? “No, it’s exactly the same,’’ she says with a laugh. “I’m still doing her as a 16-year-old wannabe with a plaid high school uniform on.’’

Plum pitched the project to the troupe in January 2010. She recruited director Adrianne Krstansky, and together they cut Shakespeare’s text to two hours or so, mostly by lopping out battle scenes.

“Just the reading and the research of this for the last year and a half has been glorious, because so much has exploded in the cultural world about Cleopatra,’’ Plum says. She cites the biography “Cleopatra: A Life,’’ by Stacy Schiff and several museum exhibits of Egyptian artifacts. She even visited the Egyptian wing of the Louvre. “It’s been a lot of bathing myself in images and artwork and ideas for a long time, which you often don’t get to do when you’re doing a role.’’

What did she learn? “How brilliant the woman was,’’ Plum says.

“Antony and Cleopatra’’ is a tragedy, of course, following the passionate but tormented relationship between the female pharaoh and the Roman general amid the struggles for power that surround them.

“Certainly Antony and Cleopatra strive to be godlike, mythological figures in this world,’’ Krstansky says. “And on some level they really do live up to it, and on another level they failed horribly.’’

The appeal of the play, she said, is “watching that struggle and this incredible lust and hunger and appetite they have, for life and for love and for food and for each other and for war and for power, and then seeing how frail and human and weak they are in the midst of all that.’’

After all her study, Plum doesn’t buy the traditional interpretation that Cleopatra gained her place in history simply by dint of her beauty and sex appeal — an impression reinforced for modern audiences by the Elizabeth Taylor movie. “Elizabeth Taylor was so luscious and had to do almost nothing in order to be fascinating,’’ Plum says.

She says that image of Cleopatra as drawing all her power from her sexuality was shaped by the fact that her biographies were always written by men, including Plutarch, Shakespeare’s main source. “In fact, the only extant portraits of Cleopatra that do exist are on the coinage, and they belie that myth of her extreme beauty,’’ Plum says.

What Schiff’s book made clear was that Cleopatra “was an extraordinary mind, a military strategist and the first pharaoh in 300 years to speak Egyptian.’’

That’s not to say that she and Antony didn’t have a great passion or that she didn’t devote herself to his seduction. James Andreassi makes his debut with Actors’ Shakespeare Project playing Mark Antony.

“He’s a very muscular Italian dude,’’ Plum says cheerfully. “He’s got the hair, the muscles, he’s got the look, and he’s a really great actor and fun to play with.’’

Actors’ Shakespeare Project artistic director Allyn Burrows brought Andreassi to the cast, having worked with the Elm Shakespeare Company in New Haven, where Andreassi is the founder and artistic director.

“I’m used to working with men that I know in the Boston theater community, so there was a big question hanging in the balance, and the arranged marriage has worked,’’ Plum says.

Plum’s real-life husband and fellow company member, Richard Snee, is also in the production as Enobarbus, one of Antony’s supporters.

“Every actress who has tried to play this role talks about the challenge of the notoriously difficult quotation, ‘her infinite variety,’ ’’ Plum says. “It’s a matter of degree and not going overboard.’’

Defining moments Only one more week to catch the four productions in Apollinaire Theatre Company’s Foreign Fest at the Chelsea Theatre Works in Chelsea. The company is presenting rotating performances of four international plays on the question of “What defines who we are?’’

“Arabian Night’’ by Roland Schimmelpfennig is a “sleek and sensual urban thriller’’ set among the residents of a German apartment building. “Enjoy’’ by Toshiki Okada is a slacker comedy set in a Tokyo manga cafe. “The Ugly One’’ by German playwright Marius Von Mayenburg is about an engineer who finally confronts the fact of his unacceptable appearance. “East of Berlin,’’ by Canadian writer Hannah Moscovitch, tells the story of the son of a Nazi doctor and how he learns the true cost of his father’s crimes.

Tickets: $20 in advance, $25 at the door. 617-887-2336, www.apollinairetheatre.com

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.

ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project

At: Modern Theatre, April 27-May 21. Tickets: $21-$48. 866-811-4111, www.actors shakespeareproject.org.