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A Family Affair

Antony and Cleopatra is an unwieldy, not-great sequel to the great Julius Caesar. That it's nearly as long as the poet's most important plays without being as easy to produce makes it a rare relic in Shakespeare's cupboard to see live. Lisa Peterson is giving it a stripped-down production at the Berkeley Rep, which is a little strange; tough as it may be to switch sets quickly from Rome to Egypt to listing ships, why would anyone want to strip the sumptuousness of Cleopatra? She's Antony's legendary distraction from his duties in Rome, the great Mediterranean seductress, lolling on a barge with purple sails "so perfumed that/ The winds were love-sick with them. The oars were silver,/ Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke."

Why would you put this on a naked stage with stark postmodern lighting? The short answer is to make the thing playable, but even if Peterson has poetic reasons for stripping down her production, it gives Cleopatra the look of an impoverished queen.

Antony has estranged himself from both Rome and his wife, and spends most of his time in Egypt. When his wife dies, though, he returns to Rome and forges a new relationship with Octavius, his partner in a post-Julius Caesar triumvirate, and even marries Octavia, Octavius' sister, which doesn't please Cleopatra at all. But the marriage is purely formal. When Antony goes back to Egypt, his relationship with Rome sours, and he eventually does sea-battle with Octavius on the Mediterranean. A series of defeats and misunderstandings leads to a Romeo-and-Juliet-style double suicide -- florid in Cleopatra's case, with the queen formal in her throne and a live snake at her breast.

Roman restraint belonged to Caesar; nothing in this story is subtle. Peterson has tried to evoke a lot with not much at all -- sparse costumes, no background, oars for the odd ship, and a cast of only seven to play more than 20 characters. It doesn't always work. Sometimes the lighting evinces dramatic scene-shifts and mood, sometimes it just looks like shadows of the lighting technicians' feet. Sometimes you think the costumes are a joke, sometimes a not-very-funny mistake. Joseph Siravo and Kandis Chappell do a good Antony and Cleopatra, especially near the end, but Elaine Tse puts in a strained, willed performance as a series of minor characters.

The strongest actor is Jonathan Haugen, whose transformation from fey Egyptian attendant to stern Caesar is total enough to carry the show's basic tension without any visible effort. And the music -- played on a prepared piano by Thaddeus Pinkston -- is worth the price of admission. Pinkston makes noises not unlike the sound of his own name by hammering and picking at the exposed piano strings, like a little boy set loose with a toolbox on an unusual harp.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Meehan, Myself, and I. By the Meehan Brothers. Directed by Nathaniel Roberts. Starring Howard, Christopher, and Michael Meehan. At the Jewel Theater, 655 Geary (at Leavenworth), through Jan. 2. Call 241-1514.

The Meehan Brothers are a group of straight white Irish boys who grew up in the Sunset; Meehan, Myself, and I is a comedy revue about their un-birth-controlled (10-son) Catholic family. Three of them do the performing -- Christopher, Howard, and Michael -- but on opening night most of the others were in the audience. If you can stomach this kind of home-grown fare the show isn't half bad: There is some clannish cheerleading, some soppy boyhood reminiscing, and some limply earnest seriousness, but when the Meehans' sense of farce starts to cook they're like good stand-up comedy.

One of the best skits is a riff on Michael's hopes of becoming a stand-up comedian. While he tries to demonstrate what his show would be like, his brothers interrupt with ideas: "Mike -- could you do the one about ...," and then proceed to ruin the jokes they like best from his repertoire.

"Priest in Training" is about a seminary student who barges into the confessional to sit with his mentor priest while a parishioner gives a long and torturous confession. The parishioner talks about adultery with his wife's sister while the student eats tortilla chips. Though the skit starts with a slow introduction to the boring mentor priest, it ends with energy and suspense. There's also a good laceration of slam poetry, featuring an aggressive, improvising poet competing against a meek one whose "unfinished" work doesn't have any words, and a social-butterfly MC who stutters and can't keep his hands away from his horn-rimmed glasses.

One very bad sketch is called "Two Guys Jumping," and begins with a snob and a townie meeting at the top of a building, where they both want to commit suicide. At one point the townie blames his problems on El Nino, and a Mexican guitarist leans out the window to lead them in a terrible song. (There's just no excuse for any more El Nino jokes, in my opinion.)

Another troublesome skit is "68th Street," which has Christopher telling what must be a true story about his flirtation with grief and suicide in New York. True and sad as it may be in fact, it doesn't translate onto the stage, partly because the range of the Meehan Brothers is limited to over-the-top registers of funny. But "68th Street" leads into a sendup of benefit events called "Walk for Justice," in which Michael and Howard try to keep Christopher from becoming too self-involved. They riff on ideas for benefits like "Hopscotching for Herpes," "Lollygagging for Lyme Disease," "Collapsing for Cholera," and "Dropping Your Pants for Trichinosis" -- while Christopher haplessly tries to lollygag and drop his pants -- and by the end both Christopher and the audience have pulled out of their collective funk.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Antony and Cleopatra. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Lisa Peterson. Starring Kandis Chappell, Joseph Siravo, Jonathan Haugen, Tamu Gray, and Jack Davidson. At the Berkeley Repertory Theater, 2025 Addison (at Shattuck) in Berkeley, through Jan. 8. Call (510) 845-4700.

 
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