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ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA

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Here's another fascinating and frustrating show from Poor Players—the tiny troupe that's tripping through the plays of Shakespeare on a budget that couldn't keep bigger theatres in backstage biscuits. The fascination lies in the supersized performances of their leading man, Richard Baird, whose presence expands any role he plays—even a supporting one—into a storm center that charges the other players with its energy but distorts the play with its turbulence. The frustration is that Baird bestrides these small productions like a colossus with the rest of the cast walking under his huge legs. A director might try to tone him down to half or even a quarter of his intensity to harmonize with the cast—but that could rob much of the fun from these productions.

Fortunately the key character of Mark Antony excellently suits the qualities Baird brings to a role: the huge emotional amplitude, the bursting passions, the shame and remorse, the homicidal rages, the repentance, the cooing and crooning, the howls—all fit the bipolar profile of Antony. Plus, there is the clarity, precision, and pace that Baird gives Shakespeare's words. Amy Mayer's Cleopatra has much spirit and holds her own to a degree against the force of Baird's Antony, keeping him from making her his mere plaything, though her voice is a syrinx to his buccina and her problems as leading lady are akin to those of Fay Wray with King Kong.

Director Nick Kennedy, who also plays a square, uptight Octavius Caesar against Antony's stoned party animal, has staged much of the play in the seeming spirit of a college kegger amongst the frat boys of SPQR, with the ancient/modern mix-and-match costumes (by Stacie Taylor, Billie Baird, and Richard Baird) that add to the atmosphere of hazings gone tragically awry at a toga party brawl with the ROTC in the Nile Delta Stigma house.

Typically for this play, the role of Enobarbus proves nearly the most interesting, and Max Macke sympathetically draws his steady character arc from devotion to disillusionment across the mad backdrop of Antony and Cleopatra's manic-depressive rollercoaster ride. Hilary White and Rachael Van Wormer do well as Cleopatra's handmaidens among the supporting company of Edwin Eigner, Neil MacDonald, Jesse Keller, Justin Lang, Keath Hall, Jeff Sullivan, and Brandon Walker.

"Antony and Cleopatra," presented by Poor Players at Academy of Performing Arts, 4580-B Alvarado Canyon Road, San Diego. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Mar. 11-Apr. 9. $12-15. (619) 255-1401.

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