Sad is good: St. Louis Shakespeare scores with Antony and Cleopatra.

A powerful play receives a near-perfect production.

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Antony and Cleopatra

The Orthwein Theatre, 101 North Warson Road, Ladue (on the campus of Mary Institute Country Day School)

Through March 11. Tickets are $20 to $22 (students $15, seniors $18 to $20). Call 314-361-5664 or visit www.stlshakespeare. org.

Through modern eyes, it's easy to view Shakespeare's tragedy Antony and Cleopatra as nothing more than a midlife crisis: He has abandoned home, family and duty for the ultimate trophy wife and a bitchin' loft with a spectacular view of the river — but that's comedy, not tragedy. In the current St. Louis Shakespeare production, the notes set up the story as a tale of two "sensualists" who can't resist each other, leading to their mutual destruction. Which is all well and good, but as the only character with a backstory, it is Antony who must provide the tragedy: His death must be painful for all, or else everything rings hollow. Robin Weatherall's direction is careful to show that Antony possesses a nobility of spirit that is dimmed, then restored, but not saved.

When we meet him, Antony is living a dream. Surrounded by soft luxuries, suffused in golden light, his Egypt is a paradise. On the opposite side of the stage, we see austere Rome: Upright columns, stark white light and right angles of marble contrast with Egypt's gentle inclines and muted palette. Rome is duty, politics — business, as personified in Caesar. William Roth's Caesar is a cold bureaucrat, snapping off lines with the manner of a man who has many other things to do and say today. He's a chief executive who chafes more than rages at Antony's peccadilloes. Indeed, he ticks off Antony's failings in the same detached manner that he lists pirate rebellions and a recent civil uprising. They, like Antony, are inefficient, bad for business, bad for Rome and, hence, bad for Caesar. The suggested solution to Antony and Caesar's falling-out — Antony's marriage to Caesar's sister — suits him because it's expedient, politically sound and good for business.

As Caesar reflects Rome, so Cleopatra mirrors Egypt. Missy Miller plays Cleopatra as a purring, soft-bodied sybarite. Twice she turns a man in on himself, cooing and petting him into tractable muscle to do her bidding. Her seductive curves become steeled muscles of her own when she needs them, however. Cleopatra beats a messenger savagely, losing a sandal in her fury to get one last kick in as her servants pull her off the hapless soul. Her response to this same messenger's subsequent flattery is a gradual softening — she yields first grudgingly, then guardedly, then gleefully, eventually glowing with the certainty that Antony's new bride is tallow to her incandescent flame.

But it is incumbent upon Antony to carry the story's tragedy, and Kevin Beyer is magnificent in the role. Beyer has a leonine quality in his carriage and voice, the latter a sonorous, rich thing that burnishes each line. An old soldier far removed from duty, even in decadent Egypt there is evidence of Antony's slumbering power. Beyer gives him a host of little gestures that mark him in stark contrast to Caesar's ruthless efficiency. The way he lightly bounces his palms on his knees to signal the end of his audience with Caesar (an unpleasant necessity discharged), the cavalier flip of an emptied wine bowl (clearly not the first he's drained): These movements mark Antony as a man of action, an old lion content for the moment to laze in the sun — but with one great fight left in him.

A clever bit of stagecraft reveals in subtle fashion Antony's power. After Enobarbus (Richard Lewis, excellent throughout) has abandoned him, Antony stands on the Roman half of the stage, fully aware of how he has hurt his former lord and friend. As Enobarbus rails against himself, an armed and armored Antony stands in the shadows of the Egypt half, a presence that looms across the sea and in the mind of both his shamed lieutenant and the audience.

Beyer matches the majesty of this silent moment in his death scene; with a wild look in his eye he falls on his sword — is it regret? Realization of everything lost? Relief? Beyer's anguished face is eloquent, as is the silence he allows before continuing with his speech.

The production's only real failing was an occasional muddiness that obscured the dialogue. Whether it was an unfortunate characteristic of the room or a technical error, the murkiness was intermittent. It would come suddenly, then just as suddenly clear up, and all would be right — gloriously right — again.

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