'Antony and Cleopatra': Carnations, cupcakes, and a fun time

A scene from "Antony and Cleopatra." The long, rarely performed play was staged in two hours by Missoula Oblongata and Puppet Uprising.
A scene from "Antony and Cleopatra." The long, rarely performed play was staged in two hours by Missoula Oblongata and Puppet Uprising.
Posted: June 10, 2011

First, you have to get yourself a red carnation, or some facsimile of a red carnation, which you're supposed to wear in order to be recognized at the corner of Girard Avenue and Front Street. That's where a god or a guide (I'm not sure which, maybe both) meets you, outside the SEPTA station, to escort you to the theater.

On this night, he was Mercury, which seemed right, as the street temperature was right up there.

On Wednesday's opening night of Antony and Cleopatra, about 80 of us wore carnations for what is called a "secret Shakespeare production" by the traveling outré theater company called the Missoula Oblongata, which has performed in the city before and has a following, and Puppet Uprising, which began in Philadelphia and supports puppeteers from all over.

One idea of "secret theater" is that we don't know where the performance is until we're escorted there, or the nature of it until we get there.

So we walked up Girard Avenue and along Second Street to the site - Go ahead! Threaten me! I'll never give it away! This is dinner theater, of a sort, and once there, we were greeted by Antony and Cleopatra-themed centurions serving little cups of real mint juleps and nonalcoholic ones, too, plus mini-cupcakes. And then the show began.

With due respect to William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra is an unproduceable, 3,600-line mess with an enormous number of scenes, some lasting seconds. It's rarely performed. You either have to boldly reduce it to get to the tasty sauce (the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Company's way, triumphantly, a few seasons back) or pretty much rewrite the thing (Missoula Oblongata's way, a bizarre, workable, and altogether goofy success).

I am not going to give away the various punches of this particular Antony and Cleopatra, except to say that its fringe quality gives the play some nice turns; that it's about 30 percent Shakespeare and the rest free-range interpretation; that it rambles intentionally, in theatrical styles and in different rooms; and that it comes complete with a different dessert from five Philadelphia neighborhoods with each of its five short acts.

The play itself is done by five different theater companies, one per act; some acts are better than others, and if you don't like one act, wait a few minutes - another is coming. The last act gives the play a modern, feel-good slant, something Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor would have done well to consider when they took the roles in the movie Cleopatra.

The show is full of little twists, with several funny extremes - particularly Acts 3 and 5. The puppets are large affairs; this Cleopatra has one big asp. Act 1, a thematic overview of the play, is too droll to work well. But be prepared to boogie in Act 2. If you can understand the words through the overpowering orchestration of Act 4's neat cantata, with its nice multimedia effect, you've got one up on me.

As it is, the five companies that make up the troupe have one up on the Bard. They bring Antony and Cleopatra in at two hours, and among all the happy senselessness, they impart the sense of the play.


Antony and Cleopatra

Presented by the Missoula Oblongata and Puppet Uprising through Sunday, when tickets were available at presstime; other shows were sold out. The theater space is at a secret location. Audience members meet inside the Girard Avenue el station on the Market Frankford Line, at the corner of Front Street and Girard Avenue, at 8 p.m. and will be escorted to the theater. Audience members must wear a red carnation in order to identify themselves to the escorts and other audience members. Tickets: $25 at the door, if available, or $21 in advance. Information: 413-230-4525 or www.themissoulaoblongata.com.


Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/howardshapiro.

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