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Snakes & Shakes

Nothing kills a death scene faster than a rubber snake. The final scene of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra calls for the Queen of the Nile to die at the fangs of poisonous asps. Of course common sense (not to mention equity regulations) rule out actual snake bites on stage, but in Act III of Theatricum Botanicum's new production of the Bard's last, great tragedy, Cleopatra enters wearing a live python.

Given the gutsy decisions made by director Ellen Geer, not to mention the daring performance of Abby Craden as Cleopatra, one almost believed that live snakes would also be on stage in Act V to deliver the fatal bites. However, when the basket of asps arrived, it contained only little plastic snakes of the toy store variety (a fact driven home, when one of Cleopatra's attendants disgustedly threw one of rubbery reptiles against the wall--only to have it bounce back at him).

This snake problem is one of the many difficulties directors face when staging Antony and Cleopatra, but this mishap was the only major flaw in otherwise first-rate revival. Finding an actress who can make Cleopatra believably sexy, powerful, larger-than-life and human is usually the tallest hurdle for any production to overcome, yet Abby Craden embodies all of these qualities. She makes her first entrance straddling Antony as he walks into the palace, and Craden doesn't lets the Queen's hormones rest until the snakes have done their deed.

Craden's Cleopatra is lusty throughout; though she never lets her vamping turn campy. Her charismatic performance is less effective in the quiet moments of the play, but very few actors can make outdoor Shakespeare feel truly intimate.

Director Ellen Geer also pitches the production towards the big moments. The battle scenes are emphasized, and the rest is significantly pared down. At two hours and fifteen minutes, it's not the most probing or poetic take on Antony and Cleopatra, but turning Shakespeare's most flowery play into a quick thrill is no small feat.

Simon Abkarian also trims Shakespeare's words in his new production of Love's Labor's Lost, but Abkarian's staging is more notable for what it adds. A charming overture is attached to show backstory through pantomime. Also added are French words, a brief monologue about globalization and capitalization, and a wild hootenanny consisting of Russian gibberish. Some of Abkarian's additions are rooted in the text, some are playful stretches; but everything in his production is infused with theatrical whimsy.

Abkarian worked for years with the French director Ariane Mnouchkine, and his style resembles Mnouchkine's anti-realistic theatricality. Characters often face the audience when speaking, raise curtains themselves, or sit just off stage in full view after making their exits. These touches of modernism work well with the artifice of Shakespeare's early comedy which is more about language than drama.

The dilettantish wordplay that is Love's Labor's Lost's signature is not elevated by the individual cast members--none of the actors stand out like Abby Craden's Cleopatra, making Shakespeare's words sound immediate. The director appears to have used rehearsals not to get line readings perfect, but instead to build an ensemble, as the entire cast is in synch with each other and Abkarian's vision of the piece.

All of this adds up to a very European and very enjoyable evening of theater. It's a long evening at almost three hours, but every minute of it (even the scenes that drag) has a nonchalant style and grace. Love's Labor's Lost is the rare Shakespeare comedy that ends in uncertainty instead of marriage. Abkarian wistfully expands the play's uncertainty of love to include the bittersweet unpredictability of life and art.

Love's Labor's Lost runs at the Actor's Gang through September 16, Antony and Cleopatra continues at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum through September 24.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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