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Shakespeare Tavern stages whirlwind Antony & Cleopatra

It's not easy keeping pace with Antony and Cleopatra. The Roman General and Egyptian Queen can be considered the preeminent celebrity couple of the day, with their bigger-than-life love affair and outsized emotions and appetites being the talk of the known world. Few historical figures lived as fast or as large.

It can be just as much a challenge keeping up with the play Antony and Cleopatra. Shakespeare presents not just a doomed portrait of star-crossed lovers but a play that spans all of the politics and beliefs of its period, making the transition from a heroic age to a prosaic one, from laughter to tears. A virtual hybrid of the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet and the history of the Henry plays, Antony and Cleopatra's whirlwind speed and shifting tone can be confusing and exhausting, but also rich and exciting.

The Shakespeare Tavern's simple, stripped-down production serves the play surprisingly well. Dizzying though it may be in switching from Alexandria to Athens to Rome and back again, the Tavern offers a fast-moving and poetic production of Antony and Cleopatra and the collision of hearts and nations.

When the play opens, we can feel as though we're joining a story already in progress -- and in one respect we are, as Shakespeare picks up a few years after the events of Julius Caesar. Roman superstar Marc Antony (Dikran Tulaine) is losing his valiant reputation in cavorting with Cleopatra (Agnes Lucinda Harty), incurring the wrath of Emperor Octavius (David Harrell).

With warmongering Pompey (Stuart McDaniel) on the march, Octavius offers to bury the hatchet on the condition that Antony marry his sister Octavia (Jennifer Akin). Antony's loyalty seems to vacillate from his homeland to his Egyptian love, but by the play's end, he himself raises arms against Octavius, despite the warnings of his sensible right-hand man (the dryly amusing Maurice Ralston).

Despite clashes of armies and teary outcomes, the play has a surprising amount of humor, from Roman cavorts to the saucy badinage between Cleopatra and her ladies-in-waiting (Akin and Jen Apgar, both winningly vivacious). The Tavern production, directed by Jeff Watkins, features plenty of asides, glances to the audience and pointed line-readings for comic purposes, such as Neil T. Necastro's scene-stealing eunuch. The jokiness can feel contemporary without being anachronistic and prove more genuinely funny than the overt clowning in Shakespeare's standard comedies.

The lightness can lead to some unintended laughter, such as the snickers that follow the squeal Tulaine emits during Antony's suicide. Odder still is the strange, near-slapstick business when the dying Antony is hoisted on ropes up to Cleopatra for their final reunion. But often Tulaine conveys both the dissipation and the jaunty masculinity behind Antony's carousing, as when he relishes the bawdy implications when describing his "crocodile." The actor also lives up to the role's towering indignation when Antony is wronged by Octavius and Cleopatra (whose betrayals during battles can be baffling.)

Harty's Cleopatra is a complete diva who, if she lived in our time, would be the type notorious for dressing room tantrums. Harty entertains most thoroughly in two scenes with the most ill-fated of the play's many messengers. Fleet Cooper's nervousness is hilarious when he informs her of Antony's marriage, only to be berated ("Fie on 'But yet!'"), beaten and threatened with death. Later he learns to flatteringly tell her what she wants to hear and fares the better for it.

Harty reveals the role's nobility after Cleopatra has seen Antony die and Octavius victorious. Hers may be Shakespeare's finest death scene, with the moment's wonderful verse ("I am fire and air") given an additional charge with the presence of a live snake.

Antony and Cleopatra features some of the usual Tavern touches, like actors roaring and running through the theater during the major battle scene. Impressive though some of Cleopatra's finery can be, other costume choices are more eccentric: Stuart McDaniels' drawling Pompey and his cohorts' pirate suits are worthy of Treasure Island. There also seems to be more than the usual declaiming to the audience from the edge of the stage, perhaps with the intent of making the action more clear.

The Shakespeare Tavern takes the example of Shakespeare's Globe as inspiration for such approaches as acting to the audience and having a minimal set. This method seems to especially suit Antony and Cleopatra, and though some of the minor performances can be rough and the historical context murky, the central comedy and tragedy come through clear.

Antony and Cleopatra plays through Dec. 17 at the New American Shakespeare Tavern, 499 Peachtree St., with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thurs.-Sat. and 6:30 p.m. Sun. $10-$24.50. 404-874-5299.

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