‘Antony and Cleopatra’ is compelling drama

A bold, bracing historical drama, “Antony and Cleopatra” is the latest summer Shakespeare offering in the lush setting of Forest Park, and this compelling interpretation is distinguished by impeccable production values and strong performances.

The sprawling epic is a tangled web of political maneuvers and flawed leaders undone by passion during the time of the Sicilian Revolt and Final War of the Roman Empire. Director Mike Donahue has boosted the action in Shakespeare’s multi-layered tale that features an enormous cast — 34 speaking roles! — and a battle at sea.

The titanic yet tragic love story of Cleopatra, the temperamental Queen of Egypt, and Mark Antony, swaggering Roman general now one of the rulers, takes center stage.

After Antony’s defeat of Brutus and Cassius, which followed Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 B.C., he falls in love with the exotic Egyptian. Because of Sextus Pompey’s rebellion threat, he is summoned back to Rome. Antony attempts to heal the rift between two emperors by marrying Octavius Caesar’s sister, but a war breaks out anyway between Pompey and Caesar. Antony returns to Egypt, content to rule the eastern part of the Republic, but this irks Caesar, who declares war on the lovers, defeats them, and strikes a deal with Cleopatra, who does Antony no favors.

In typical melodramatic imperial fashion, much misinformation, bad timing, and horrendous decisions based on whims and hubris, lead to downfalls and deaths. Oh when hormones rage and revenge rears, the result is grand theater and suicide by snake venom.

An elegant Shirine Babb and confident Jay Stratton demonstrate lust and power in equal measure, and are better together than apart, although that is not too often here. But I find the vainglorious lovers unsympathetic because of the infidelity, treachery, betrayal and misguided courses of action. Look past their faults and instead concentrate on what happens when mistakes are made on a big scale. Don’t expect the Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor movie either.

More appealing are the supporting players. Charles Pasternak, who stood out as Hotspur in last season’s “Henry IV,” returns as regal Octavius Caesar, and his mastery of Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter is impressive. He makes a robust, decisive leader.

In Antony’s camp, Moses Villarama is superb as Eros, a devoted aide, and Gary Glasgow excels as Lepidus, one of the triumvirate, as does Conan McCarty as Enobarbus, a trusted yet conflicted adviser.

Other standouts include Kari Ely as Charmian, Cleopatra’s devoted chief maid, Alan Knoll as Cleopatra’s loyal eunuch Mardian, and Raina K. Houston as Antony’s cheated-on wife Octavia.

With multiple scenes shifting between Rome and Egypt, this play can be difficult to follow. Scott C. Neale’s affecting set design is a simple but magnificent grouping of five colossal pillars, whose shimmering gold facade changes at times of day and for emotional punctuation through marvelous use of light — exceptional design by John Wylie.

The sound design by Rusty Wandall is also exemplary, and the original music composed by Greg Mackender adds much texture to the high-stakes clashes. Costume designer Dottie Marshall Englis created practical outfits indicating the various allegiances.

The play, believed to be written in the early 1600s, resembles aspects of British monarchy turmoil during Shakespeare’s day, and in retrospect, surely just can’t be coincidental. But if you are not a Shakespeare scholar, and just want to partake in a page out of the history books (and Plutarch’s “Lives”), this summer spectacle offers challenging drama, doomed romance and some dazzling water effects.

A glorious evening under the stars is a special experience to savor. You can transport yourself to another time and place, that despite hundreds of years’ difference, resonates with power plays and people problems not unlike modern times. And let’s not forget, beautiful, enduring language to cherish.

At a glance

What: “Antony and Cleopatra”

Who: Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

When: 8 nightly through June 14, except Tuesdays

Where: Shakespeare Glen, near St. Louis Art Museum in Forest Park

Admission: Free admission but ticketed reserved seating is available for purchase online at www.sfstl.com and at the park

Weather Hotline: 314-531-9800 extension 7

Activities on the green: begin at 6:30 p.m.