Bard’s classic romance delivers at restored Modern Theatre

Shakespeare was right about the timeless appeal of Cleopatra as he was about most things: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.”

And the Actors Shakespeare Project was as cunning as this “serpent of Old Nile” to revive the Bard’s magnificent “Antony and Cleopatra” just when the bewitching Egyptian is very much in vogue  again with the recent biography by Stacy Schiff  on the bestseller lists and the Angelina Jolie screen version poised to eclipse memories of Liz Taylor.

For a long time Paula Plum, winner of multiple Eliot Norton Awards as Best Actress, has been wanting to portray what is probably
Shakespeare’s most complex and certainly most fascinating female character.  Plum was undaunted by the opinion of many critics that the grandiose self-conception of these legendary lovers transcends the ability of even the best actors to give completely satisfying portrayals of the two titans.

Opposite Plum is James Andreassi, founder and Artistic Director of Connecticut’s Elm Shakespeare Company, who exudes better than she the past-their-prime world-weariness of the central figures.  Plum’s real life husband Richard Snee is excellent as Enobarbus, Antony’s long time companion. His delivery of the Cleopatra on her barge speech is a high point of the evening. Kudos too to Johnnie McQuarley kept busy in a variety of supporting roles.

Director Adrianne Krstansky, Brandeis Assistant Professor of Theater Arts, and Plum heavily cut the first three acts of the play, eliminating many characters and scenes concerned with the battles, the military and Rome. Still there’s plenty of iambic pentameter to get through, and as in most Shakespearean productions the cast has to race through their lines, with much of the beauty and insight of the Bard’s verse lost in the hustle.

The un-involving first half seems to lurch from famous speech to famous speech to keep the focus on  Plum’s  characterization of  Cleopatra (one perhaps better suited to Kate in “The Taming of the Shrew”) and on her attendants who giggle like sorority house tipplers.

Fortunately, things slow down in the second half where time is taken to explore the pathos and dignity of these aging lovers, fallible and treacherous, yet noble and passionately romantic.

ASP works wonders with its tight budget so ASP fans in the audience appreciate the intent rather than the execution of the simple set backed by mattress inner springs and the hodgepodge of costumes. Like the acting, the light and sound effects improve as the evening progresses.

ASP’s  “Antony and Cleopatra” is the first professional production to run at Suffolk University’s restored Modern Theatre on Washington Street. Several of the performances which run through May 21 are sold out.  Remaining tickets are available at actorsshakespeareproject.org.