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Measure for Measure Review: A Shakespeare for the Age of Mike Pence and Harvey Weinstein, via Elevator Repair Service

There are moments in the “Measure for Measure” by experimental theater company Elevator Repair Service at the Public that offer the purest Shakespeare on any New York stage; this occurs when they project the Bard’s words on the backdrop as the performers are reciting them. But even here, it’s only when an entire verse is projected, and scrolls up slowly, that there’s clarity. Most of the time, the projected words are scattered, fragmented, overly large, scrolling up at great speed, all of which renders the text unreadable.

The scrolling word play feels like a metaphor for this avant-garde production of Shakespeare’s last comedy as a whole: It’s hard to read. There are watchable moments, occasional visual appeal in the design, even some touching scenes. But it’s difficult to figure out – or appreciate — what director John Collins is up to.

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Julius Caesar at the Public – Pics, Controversy,Reviews

The depiction of Julius Caesar as a Trump-like figure in the Public Theater production of “Julius Caesar” has sparked outrage, the removal of sponsorship (funds) by Delta and Bank of America, and a vigorous defense. Below are the photographs from the production by Joan Marcus, and links to some articles about the controversy.

 

Public Theater’s response:

 

BRUTAL IRONIES IN THE FLAP OVER TRUMP AND ‘JULIUS CAESAR’

“Shakespeare used to be considered a defense against totalitarianism. How we flattered ourselves.”

Julius Caesar: Suddenly Controversial by Melissa Hillman

“Has no one read Julius Caesar? ..The play does not condone the murder of Caesar. While Caesar’s desire to be king, his arrogance, and his deafness to criticism all threaten democracy, murdering Caesar results in disaster…Here’s the paradox: Trump’s arrogance, desire to rule like a king, deafness to criticism, and complete lack of tolerance for anything other than adulation mirror Shakespeare’s Caesar, yet to say so openly is dangerous exactly because it is true– Trump will act like a king and use the power of his office and fame to retaliate. ”

Other Shakespeare theater companies are being attacked by people apparently mistaking them for the Public Theater.

Knives are out for theaters that bear the name ‘Shakespeare’

And what did the critics think?

Jesse Green of the New York Times liked it, making it a critic’s pick.

The first half…is great, nasty fun, even if it’s preaching to the choir. To the extent there is a problem with the Trumpification of ‘Julius Caesar’…it arises in the second half…It is then that we are faced with the ways that Trump and Caesar never properly scanned, and an aftermath in which that confusion breeds more confusion…To be fair, this is a problem built into the play

So did Adam Feldman in Time Out New York

Elizabeth Vincentelli in Newsday did not.

Turning Caesar, an efficient leader, into a comic caricature makes little sense. It may be fun to watch but it also undermines the show’s powerful ambiguity

Neither did Frank Schreck in The Hollywood Reporter.

Jeremy Gerard in Deadline was mixed.

A very good production whose singular drawback is that it makes no sense

The Outer Space Review: Ethan Lipton’s Sci Fi Shaggy Dog Midlife Crisis Musical

At first glance, singing storyteller Ethan Lipton and his three-member band – the creators and entire cast of “The Outer Space” – look like middle-aged men who never outgrew their childhood obsessions with space travel and rock ‘n’ roll. They wear those blue astronaut jumpsuits, and drink out of plastic spaceship sippy cups, and sing and play tunes in front of the walls at Joes Pub newly festooned with stars that glow purple if you shine a black light at them – precisely the decorations you’d expect in the bedroom of a nine-year-old boy.
This is how it seems on second glance, too, as Lipton narrates the funny, pointed, and strange story of the unnamed married couple who decide they’ve had it with Earth; they buy an old jalopy of a rocket ship and live in a space colony that orbits the planet Mercury, where 3,100 people live, work and shop in some 450 vessels, including a “one-dollar ship.”
Half science fiction, half Moth-like shaggy dog tale involving a midlife crisis, half social satire, half a revue of unrelated songs in a mix of genres, “The Outer Space” doesn’t quite add up to a musical. But it does count as an almost unique entertainment – “almost,” because it’s a sequel of sorts to “No Place To Go,” Lipton and company’s 2012 show, also at the Public. In that one, the man’s job was moving to Mars, and he had to decide whether to move along with it or stay in New York. In “The Outer Space,” that same man moves reluctantly to Mercury with his wife, who is the one who needed to get away from Earth.
It would be foolhardy to try to summarize the story in the 90-minute show, not because there isn’t one – although there isn’t one – but because “The Outer Space” makes something of an art form out of off-the-wall and out-of-left-field.

That’s true about the lyrics – for example, in “She Does Well in Space,” Lipton describes the wife as:
“Friend to every varmint on the block
Chickens, broccoli, they all join her flock.”

Or in the song, A to Z:
Like apples and aardvarks
Birthdays and bingo
(etc through the whole alphabet)
it’s hard to know how we could walk and talk more differently.”

That’s true about his analogies too. Lipton says the husband

“….had to concede,
our cost of living keeps going up like a rocket
while our wages putter along like a school bus
and our savings sit there like a turtle until some major catastrophe—
like a trip to the grocery store— drives them back into the toilet.”

It’s true about his descriptions of the other characters in the space colony, such as “Mika, who works in cosmology, and her husband Donald, who is part bicycle.”

Vito Dieterle, on sax

In keeping with this approach, “The Outer Space” is full of non-sequiturs and digressions. But these are funny non-sequiturs and digressions full of a kind of folksy urban social commentary, and they are set to music that is variously folk, down home blues, funk, bluegrass, Latin-flavored jazz, both soft pop and hard rock, and a final lovely ballad that begins:

Have you ever had the dream
of going somewhere beautiful
Somewhere far away and magical
at the end of all that’s natural

In short, “The Outer Space,” helps the audience, just like that space-traveling couple, get away from it all, albeit just for 80 minutes or so. And by “it all,” Lipton explains, he means:
“noise, violence, oppression, the grind,
rudeness, tourism, traffic, trash,
smelly buses, corporate greed, cultural homogenization, economic marginalization, pollution, overcrowded schools, overpriced rents, overhyped pastries, and busker rock” – as well as (I expect a recent update) the “Dark Lord” that “took over the universe.”

The Outer Space
Joe’s Pub at the Public
Book and Lyrics by Ethan Lipton 
Music composed and performed by Ethan Lipton, Vito Dieterle, Eben Levy & Ian Riggs
Directed by Leigh Silverman

Scenic and Costume Design: David Zinn
Lighting Design: Ben Stanton
Sound Design: Nicholas Pope
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $40
The Outer Space is scheduled to run through April 9, 2017

Southern Comfort Review: A Transgender Family Musical

SouthernComfortRobertandLola

Annette O’Toole as Robert and Jeff McCarthy as Lola Cola

Near the end of the bluegrass musical “Southern Comfort,” a character named Lola Cola visits the parents of her lover Robert Eads to tell them that he has died.

“Get off our property,” says Robert’s father.

But Lola persists: “Like it or not, you raised the most amazing person I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing.”

It is a deeply touching scene, surely more so because Robert Eads and Lola Cola are not just characters. They were among the real people who were featured in a 2001 film documentary with the same name as the musical. The documentary and the musical are about a group of transgender men and women who gathered once a month for Sunday dinners in Robert Eads’ home in the rural town of Toccoa, Georgia. They were people who had been rejected by the families into which they had been born, and had formed a “family of choice.”

But it also helps that the two are brought to life on stage in two remarkable and very different performances. The actress Annette O’Toole is unrecognizable and completely credible as the bewhiskered, flannel-shirted Robert Eads, a self-declared if somewhat under-sized Bubba who was born as Barbara. In the central irony of the show, Robert Eads is dying of ovarian cancer — as another character, Jackson, points out, “the last and only part of you that’s still female.”

Jeff McCarthy looks like a big man dressed as a woman, which is how other members of the chosen family saw Lola, and why she is initially resented. (“She ain’t even started on hormones yet.”) But if O’Toole is low-key in her role, McCarthy is aptly high-key in his, and greatly affecting, whether speaking or singing.

The other performers also do justice to their parts (including most of the on-stage band who are enlisted to do double-duty as minor characters, such as Robert’s parents.) Kudos to the Public Theater for having cast two of the six principal characters with transgender performers, Donnie Cianciotto as Sam, and stand-out Aneesh Sheth as Carly.

“Southern Comfort” the musical comes to the Public at a time when transgender representation on stage and screen has become something of a trend, although the musical’s creators began work on it a decade ago, and there have been two previous productions, including one in New York. Its novelty has diminished since it was first conceived, and perhaps some of its importance. There is also a struggle to give this musical an overall shape, a problem that didn’t exist in the documentary; maybe documentary filmgoers are grateful and amazed that the randomly shot footage winds up edited into any discernible plot at all. The musical offers a frame — the last year of Robert’s life, and the last time he will be alive to attend Southern Comfort, the name of an annual conference of transgender people in Atlanta that Robert’s family are aiming to attend. Within that frame, the creative team has placed 19 songs, and several reprises – all of which are tuneful, some of which are moving or amusing, a few of which are repetitive enough to have been cut without discernible damage.

All through “Southern Comfort” are worthwhile moments of insight and emotion, such as the tension between Robert and Jackson (Jeffrey Kuhn ), another female to male transgender – a relationship that both see akin to father and son, and one just as complicated. There is suspicion about newcomers into the family. Some of the squabbles, like those in any family, are mined for humor.  The old-timers bet on which of the newcomers, Lola or Carly, will try Melanie’s snicker salad first. Melanie explains the ingredients: “Snickers, green apples, cool whip and vanilla puddin’. But the secrets in the puddin’. What’s in it? It’s gotta be instant!” It’s a down-home recipe updated for the way we live now.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged.

Southern Comfort

The Public Theater
Book and Lyrics by Dan Collins
Music by Julianne Wick Davis
Choreography by Ryan Kasprzak
Music Director David M. Lutken
Directed by Thomas Caruso
Based on the Film by Kate Davis
Conceived for the stage by Robert DuSold and Thomas Caruso
Featuring Donnie Cianciotto as Sam, Lizzie Hagstedt as Storyteller/bass,Jeffrey Kuhn as Jackson, Elizabeth Ward Land as Storyteller/Percussion, David M. Lutken as Storyteller/Guitar, Jeff McCarthy as Lola Cola, Morgan Morse as pianist, Annette O’Toole as Robert Eads, Aneesh Sheth as Carly, Robin Skye as Melanie, and Joel Waggoner as Storyteller/Violin.

Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes including one intermission

Tickets: $87

Southern Comfort is scheduled to run through March 27, 2016

Before Your Very Eyes Review: Children Age to 80 in Gob Squad Show

Dress-up has never seemed more sophisticated than in “Before Your Very Eyes,” the intriguing 70-minute theater piece at the Public Theater by the Gob Squad, the European experimental troupe, which declares at the start that the audience will witness “seven lives lived in fast forward, from age ten to eighty.” We watch seven children, whose actual ages range from nine to 14, as they put on clothing, wigs and makeup in order to pretend to age, on a stage that’s like a playroom, separated by a scrim that’s supposedly a one-way mirror: The audience can look in, but the children can only see their own reflection.

“You do know why you’re here, don’t you?” a pleasant official-sounding female voice says to the children, as her words are posted in supertitles above the stage. “You’re here to live and then die.”

And so they do, with the help of live and recorded video – as teenagers, young adults, people in their 40’s, and then the elderly, who drop dead one by one.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged

While offering no especially fresh or profound insights into the aging process or life as it’s lived today, “Before Your Very Eyes” is full of chaotic and kinetic business that occasionally scores as amusing or thought provoking. There’s at least one moment in each Age of Man that feels spot-on.

“So what can you do now that you’re 21,” the voice asks one of the actors, eliciting a long list that includes:

I can legally get drunk

I can join the army

I can waste my money on cheap accessories

I can throw a crazy party where one person ends up in the Emergency room

I can vote

What can you do now you’re 45, the voice asks later.

I can spend too much money joining a gym, to try to lose weight

and

I can make my kids wear hats because I’m feeling cold

In middle age, they all attend a party in which they act out in pantomime instructions the voice gives them, such as:

Take the plate of homemade sushi you prepared and look at it – embarrassed

and

Talk about your children, schools and the gentrification of the neighborhood. Talk for too long.

A “middle-aged” Keanu looks stone-faced at a video of a “younger” Keanu full of outlandishly ambitious predictions for his future

At the end, when only Meghan is left alive, the voice then interrogates her, asking nine questions, beginning with

“How does it feel to be left behind?”

“I feel sad sometimes but my friends help me get through.”

and including “Is there anything you would have done differently? “

“I wish I had traveled more, the world’s a big place.”

There are two “teams” of child actors, Team 1 and Team A who alternate performances. (I saw Team 1.) Almost all the cast members have professional acting experience, but the Gob Squad doesn’t seem to want us to be impressed with the children’s transformation into adults. Quite the opposite. The actors always come off as children playing at grownups, as if Gob Squad is saying: But aren’t we all just forever children playing at grownups?

An Aaron Burr Who’s Not The Villain: Leslie Odom Jr in Hamilton

Leslie Odom Jr as Aaron Burr on ramp above Lin-Manuel Miranda as Hamilton., flanked by Okieriete Onaodowan as James Madison and Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson.

Leslie Odom Jr as Aaron Burr on ramp above Lin-Manuel Miranda as Hamilton, flanked by Okieriete Onaodowan as James Madison and Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson.

Leslie Odom Jr. was a huge fan of Rent when he was cast in the musical at the age of seventeen, the youngest performer ever hired for the Broadway production. “It was getting cast in that show that made me say ‘I can do this as a job’”—he can become a professional performer.

LeslieOdomJrbyMandellIn the sixteen years since, Odom has become a familiar face on television, appearing on some dozen series, most noticeably as Sam Strickland in Smash, but he has not abandoned the stage, performing in the world premiere of Jersey Boys at the La Jolla Playhouse, returning to Broadway in Alan Mencken’s Leap of Faith, and acting in a number of Off-Broadway shows, including a revival of Rent composer Jonathan Larson’s tick tick Boom.

“I haven’t felt as thrilled about anything as I did about that first show….until now,” Odom says. “Hamilton makes me feel the same way.” In what surely will be a star-making role, Odom portrays Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton’s rival (and eventual killer), in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, which is opening at the Public Theater on Tuesday, February 17th.

This is not an Aaron Burr that people have seen before, and not just because Burr raps and sings R&B.  Miranda presents him more sympathetically, as not just Hamilton’s rival but his equal — and almost his mirror.  “They’re so bound up in each other’s lives….they’re twin souls at the top of the show.” Miranda has said.

“Burr is every bit as smart as Hamilton, and every bit as gifted, and he comes from the same amount of loss as Hamilton,” Miranda told the New Yorker. “But because of the way they are wired Burr hangs back where Hamilton charges forward. I feel like I have been Burr in my life as many times as I have been Hamilton. I think we’ve all had moments where we’ve seen friends and colleagues zoom past us, either to success, or to marriage, or to homeownership, while we lingered where we were—broke, single, jobless. And you tell yourself, ‘Wait for it.’ ”

“Wait for It” is the title of one of Odom’s show-stopping numbers in the musical

As with Rent, Odom saw Hamilton first as a member of the audience, when Miranda brought the first act of the show to Powerhouse Theater at Vassar two summers ago through New York Stage and Film. “It is the most contemporary score you’ll ever hear—hip hop and r and b,” Odom says, “but Lin applies the rules of theater to make it work on stage.”

He was also floored by the non-traditional casting for the Founding Fathers, such as Christopher Jackson, an African-American actor and composer who has performed in such shows as In The Heights and Holler If Ya Hear Me. “I watched him step forward and introduce himself as George Washington—and I never questioned it for a second. That’s a meta layer of this show.”

Two months after he saw this work in progress, Miranda sent him an e-mail, asking for help with the show. This is what one could call a coincidence, or connections (“We knew each other casually.”), but Odom looks at it differently: “It took ten years of backbreaking hard work to get an opportunity like that. One thing leads to another. You find yourself in these rooms.”

(“The Room Where It Happens” is another show-stopping number in Hamilton.)

How can other theater artists get into these rooms? Spontaneously, he comes up with three rules he lives by:

1.) Never wait for permission to practice your art. You cannot wait to get a job to be an artist.

Odom cites with admiration the example of his current collaborator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who created his own opportunity as an actor through making In The Heights. “How many opportunities are there for Latino performers? He created his opportunity.”

Megan Hilty and Leslie Odom Jr.,in Smash

Megan Hilty and Leslie Odom Jr.,in Smash

While Odom says in his particular case he has been lucky in getting acting jobs, he did not even try getting a recording contract for his first solo album, which was recently released. He funded the self-titled album through Kickstarter. “When I do TV, when I do theater, that’s me being a part of somebody else’s work; I am a for-hire. With the album, I wanted to do my thing.”  Aiming to raise $30,000, he got nearly $41,000 from nearly 700 backers.

“It’s way easier to create your own opportunities now than it used to be, because of technology. Creating the art is easier, but you also now can connect much more easily with an audience.”

Odomalbumcover

Leslie Odom Jr.’s album cover

Odom is an active user of social media; 95 percent of his backers on Kickstarter, he believes, were brought from his Twitter feed or Facebook page. That was not the only way Twitter helped. Odom was a fan of the guitarist Michael “Nomad” Ripoll, whom he first noticed on some online videos with Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds. “I sent him a couple of Tweets—and I got him to play on my record.”

He admits “there’s another side” to social media. “It’s really easy to get anonymous hate. But I haven’t gotten that.”

2.) Study your art. Never stop studying.

When he was a young child, “people would ask me what I wanted to be, and I would answer a doctor, a policeman, a cowboy, an actor: I wanted to try all those things; I think it was about the costumes.” By the time he was in high school, after years of school plays, church choirs, and community theater, he had narrowed it down. But when as a high school senior in Philadelphia he went for the open call audition in New York for Rent, “it was a Hail Mary pass; nobody thought I would get it.”

It was a given he would go to college. His experience on Broadway convinced him the choice should be Carnegie Mellon, a conservatory.

Six months into his freshman year there, Bernard Telsey, the casting agent who had hired him for Rent, called again: How would he like to come back to Broadway and do the role of Mereb in Aida?

He would.

But his parents wouldn’t.

“My parents basically threatened me—‘there’s no way you’re doing that.’ I was mad at them for a long time. But it was the right decision. The single most important decision in my life was to go to Carnegie and finish. I learned craft and technique. I made lifelong friends,” including classmates Josh Gad and Rory O’Malley.

But his education as an artist continues to this day.

You have to become an expert. That means classes of course, but the world is a classroom too. I go to see at least one Broadway or Off-Broadway show a week. I have to see what’s going on, what the leaders in the profession are doing, whether at a 54 Below concert or a show at Lincoln Center. These are the artists of my generation. I want to see what their repertoire is, what they’re experimenting with, what their band’s like.

3.) Find a spiritual practice that works for you.

Leslie Odom, Jr. and his wife, actress Nicolette Robinson  (currently in Brooklynite)

Leslie Odom, Jr. and his wife, actress Nicolette Robinson (currently in Brooklynite)

You have to nurture that part of yourself. It’s a hard walk. I focus on my career a hell of a lot. There have been crushing disappointments along the way. It’s not a fair business, there’s not always a rhyme or reason to it. It’s really tough. There are really brilliant performers who get taken down because of the pressures. So you need to focus on light and positive energy. Surrender to the part of it that you can’t control. Whether it’s yoga, meditation, prayer, in this business, you need a spiritual practice. My spiritual practice includes prayer and meditation. I walk with God. I would consider myself Christian, but my wife is Jewish.” (Nicolette Robinson is an actress, currently in “Brooklynite” at the Vineyard Theater.)  “The thing that is common in all the religions is a loving, divine presence. Part of spiritual practice is also having great friends, nurturing great relationships.

If he looks to the spiritual, he relishes the devilish role he has undertaken currently. “If you’re an actor and you have any inclination to chew the scenery, a bad guy is what you want to do.” But if Aaron Burr is definitely a bad guy in Hamilton, “Lin has written him with compassion, which forces the actor and the audience to examine the complexities of his relationship with Hamilton.”

All in all, Odom clearly feels lucky to be in the show: “When you perform alongside Lin, it feels like you’re at the center of the universe.” Still, this is an Off-Broadway show scheduled to run only through May 3rd (albeit the buzz is that it will inevitably transfer to Broadway.) What would happen if another television series came his way?

“Where I am now (and it changes all the time) television is nice work when you can get it—good money, long hours. But I use a very small part of myself. It’s a very compartmentalized art form. We’re looking at little tiny moments all day long. I want to be used… I want to be used up. I want to run to a project that uses me fully. They’re asking me to do things I never thought I could do. What’s being asked of me is so high it’s exciting.”

On the other hand, “five years from now, I may want to pay all my bills.”

This article originally appeared, in slightly altered form, in Howlround.

Leslie Odom Jr., as Aaron Burr, Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton, Jasmine Cephas Jones, and Renée Elise Goldsberry as members of the Schuyler family.

Leslie Odom Jr., as Aaron Burr, Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton, Jasmine Cephas Jones, and Renée Elise Goldsberry as members of the Schuyler family.

Antony and Cleopatra Review: Shakespeare’s Tragedy in Haiti and Miami

AntonyandCleopatra1“Antony and Cleopatra,”which is being given a colorful and ambitiously reworked production at the Public Theater, has a tragic/romantic ending reminiscent of “Romeo and Juliet,” and it features the same charismatic figure as the “lend me your ears” orator from “Julius Caesar.” So why has there been no production of this particular play by Shakespeare on Broadway since 1952?

The answer seems clear: Despite two intriguing central characters and some choice poetry, this is not one of the Bard’s crowd pleasers.  The early-20th century Shakespearean scholar A.C. Bradley called it “the most faultily constructed of all the tragedies.”  It is a sweeping and somewhat confusing history told over some 40 scenes, more scenes than any other Shakespearean play.

There are not likely to be many objections then — at least on this side of the Atlantic — to the idea of the revamped version that has opened at the Public, which is novel in several ways.  It is a joint production of the Public with two other theaters that have already mounted it, the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon in the United Kingdom, and GableStage in Miami, Florida. Miami is the hometown of Tarell Alvin McCraney,  who is credited as having directed and “edited” the play. McCraney, a new MacArthur “genius grant” recipient best known for his authorship of “Choir Boy” and “The Brother/Sister Plays,” calls what he’s done a “radical edit.” He changes the order of the scenes in “Antony and Cleopatra,” trims some of them, and — most noticeably — transposes the action from Ancient Egypt and Rome, to Haiti in the 18th century (then called  Saint-Domingue)  on the eve of its revolution from Napoleonic France. One knows of this change from the scenery, the costumes, the songs, the dancing, the allusions to Voodoo, and the Creole accents…. but not the text:  The characters still talk of “Rome” and “Egypt.”

But it is indeed the Haitian frame that provides what’s most entertaining about this “Antony and Cleopatra.” A four-piece band, including Akintayo Akinbode’s infectious bongo playing, perform composer Michael Thurber Haitian-tinged music, which adds much to the interludes of singing, and to the sinuous and elegant Afro-Caribbean and French dancing choreographed by Gelan Lambert.

The cast hails from all three venues — Miami, New York, or England — and are impressive in their diversity.  They are, however, uneven in their performances. It was hard to see Jonathan Cake’s Antony and Joaquino Kalukango’s Cleopatra as wily and powerful heads of state who command armies and rule empires. I also didn’t sense much chemistry between them until near the end — and the end is nearly three hours in coming, and I felt every minute of it.  But the last few moments, helped along by set designer Tom Piper and lighting designer Stephen Strawbridge, are vivid.

McCraney has said how much, growing up poor in Miami, he benefitted from the programs that brought theater to schoolchildren like him. His “Antony and Cleopatra” seems a good production for school groups (providing, of course, that the tickets are subsidized)

Antony and Cleopatra
At the Public Theater
By William Shakespeare
Edited & Directed by Tarell Alvin McCraney
Cast: Jonathan Cake, Charise Castro-Smith,
Samuel Collings, Ash Hunter, Chukwudi Iwuji, Joaquina Kalukango, Ian Lassiter, Chivas Michael, Sarah Niles, Henry Stram
Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
Ticket prices: $40 to $80
“Antony and Cleopatra” is scheduled to run through March 23.