Folger production mines humor, satire in Bard's tragedy. Romance between Cleopatra and Antony lacks spark

Innovation is one thing. But staging Shakespeare's ``Antony and Cleopatra'' so that Cleopatra has to slosh through a small blue wading pool (accidentally catching her hem on a toy battleship) is quite another, when its result is to turn a dramatic scene into a Marx Brothers caper. Opening night for the new season of the Shakespeare Theater at the Folger was not without drama, although it may not have been the drama Shakespeare intended. Artistic director Michael Kahn's novel and creative staging of Shakespearean classics has brought packed houses and fresh luster to the Folger. But his controversial direction of the tragic romance between Mark Antony, one of the triumvirate that ruled the Roman Empire, and the Egyptian queen sometimes sacrifices dramatic impact for a new approach. We should not be stifling laughter as Cleopatra, sopping wet, slogs out of the pool to hear her Antony say, ``O, whither hast thou led me, Egypt?''

But this lively production is well worth seeing for the play itself and for those pungently beautiful lines, as well as for some formidable classic acting. The British actor Kenneth Haigh looks right as Mark Antony, with a strong, gray-bearded authority. His performance is superb and subtle as he delivers the Shakespearean lines that seem as natural to him as breathing. There is a problem, however, that he shares with this Cleopatra, as played by Franchelle Stewart Dorn. The reckless passion that is the tragic flaw for both these characters is missing here. ``We have kissed away kingdoms and provinces'' cannot be said of the pair together here.

Franchelle Stewart Dorn, a talented actress who singed the stage with her fierce Lady Macbeth last season, seems to be still grappling with this role. It may be that director Kahn's emphasis, stressing the comic or satirical possibilities of this tragedy, has made her performance ambiguous.

When we first see her, this Cleopatra looks less like a queen than a 1930s Hollywood film star, with a sleek, jeweled hairdo and a flowing white gown that might have been designed by Madame Gr`es. She smolders, vamps, plays some lines for laughs, and sounds as husky as early Bacall. She is really regal only in the final act, when she gives a devastating performance as the queen who vanquishes Caesar's victory with her own suicide. This is the core of her performance, and it should be built on.

In the strong role of Octavius Caesar, second in the triumvirate, Michel R. Gill is not effective enough. He plays Octavius more like a dauphin than the man who would rule the world. Emery Battis, though, is eloquently fine as Lepidus, the last member of the triumvirate.

While Michael Kahn deserves praise for rethinking this legendary play, his innovations tend to distract from the play's great strength - the language. Robert Edward Darling's main set is handsome but too diverting with its anguished Giacometti-like faces, its bamboo blinds that turn into sails, and that pool.

It shouldn't compete with wonderful lines like the description of Cleopatra's barge: ``like a burnished throne/ Burn'd on the water: the poop was beaten gold:/ Purple the sails, and so perfumed, that/ The winds were lovesick with them.''

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