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Cleopatra (Nick Hardin) gets acquainted with Julius Caesar (Doug Joseph) in Charles Busch’s Cleopatra, running through Sunday at Short North Stage’s Garden Theater. (Photos by Jason Allen)

By Richard Ades

Charles Busch’s Cleopatra could be called a funnier take on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Then again, the one time I saw the Bard’s original, it seemed pretty funny.

That’s because the lead actors overplayed the title roles so thoroughly that each seemed to be trying to upstage the other. What’s worse, Antony did his emoting in such a juicy fashion that while the audience was being bathed in pathos, poor Cleo was being showered with spit. Needless to say, the tragic ending failed to move anyone to tears.

The situation is entirely different in Columbus Immersive Theater’s intentionally humorous production of Cleopatra. Though Busch’s approach to comedy could never be called dry, at least the spit spraying is kept to a minimum. That’s fortunate, because the stage runs across the middle of the intimate Green Room, which means no viewer is far from the action.

Working under Edward Carignan’s direction (and in the colorful costumes he designed), the actors stay true to the work’s campy sense of humor.

Seeking friends in high places: Nick Hardin as Cleopatra

In the title role, Nick Hardin is spectacularly on target as the Egyptian queen who must curry favor with her country’s Roman conquerors. Hardin’s Cleo is a mixture of innocence and ruthless cunning, with occasional winking references to the 1940s movie stars who are a favorite camp inspiration.

The two Romans who become her love interests, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, are played with surprising restraint by Doug Joseph and Rob Philpott, respectively. Fans of Joseph’s drag performances will be happy to know he later gets the opportunity to appear as Caesar’s justifiably jealous wife, Calpurnia. Though all too brief, it’s one of the show’s more hilarious moments.

In another dual role, Kate Lingnofski is a convincingly naïve as Octavia, but on opening night she was less successful as Octavia’s brother, Octavian. That may be a reflection of this fundraising production’s speeded-up rehearsal schedule and isn’t necessarily indicative of how Lingnofski will do in remaining performances.

Cleopatra’s underlings are entertainingly played by Ricky Locci as Apollodorus (AKA “Dorus”), Kelsey Hopkins as Charmion and Laura Falb as Iras, a new hire who at first foments Charmion’s ire and later arouses another emotion entirely. Perhaps the actor who makes the most of his role’s potential is Nick Lingnofski, who’s a hoot as the anxiety-inducing (and anxiety-prone) Soothsayer.

It should be noted that all of the actors are performing gratis to support the work of Short North Stage.

If Cleopatra isn’t quite as funny as some of Busch’s other creations—for instance, Die, Mommie, Die!, a Short North Stage hit in 2016—it may be because the playwright was shackled by characters he didn’t invent. But the comedy is still fun, thanks to a cast and director who know how to make the most of its campy take on an iconic romance.

Columbus Immersive Theater will present Cleopatra through Aug. 6 at Short North Stage’s Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday, 3 and 7 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

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