Story: Following the assassination of Julius Caesar and the subsequent defeat of Brutus and Cassius, Mark Antony is proclaimed one of a trio to rule the Roman Empire along with Octavius Caesar and Lepidus. Antony oversees the eastern portion of the empire, and in doing so falls in love with Cleopatra, queen of Egypt.

Already married for the third time, Antony is more or less relieved to hear of his wife Fulvia’s death, which frees him for further dalliance with Cleopatra. Octavius, however, suggests that their political union will be stronger if Antony marries Caesar’s unattractive sister Octavia. Caesar, Lepidus and Antony then prepare for war against Sextus Pompey, who is leading an army of rebels to avenge the defeat of his father by Julius Caesar.

Antony, defending the empire in Athens, sends Octavia back to Rome while he goes to Alexandria to rejoin the jealous Cleopatra. Octavius Caesar angrily declares war against Antony and Cleopatra, defeating Antony at sea with Rome’s superior navy. Antony blames his lover and her navy for betraying him and leading to his defeat, vowing to kill Cleopatra.

When she hears of his plan, she leaks word that she already is dead. The remorseful Antony is devastated and tries to kill himself but fails. Mortally wounded, he is taken to Cleopatra and dies. Seeing Antony dead and not wanting to become a pawn of Rome, Cleopatra then takes her own life. Octavius orders that the two lovers should be buried together.

Highlights: Shakespeare Festival St. Louis celebrates its 15th anniversary of free performances of plays by William Shakespeare with an eclectic production of Antony and Cleopatra. Directed by St. Louis native Mike Donahue, it’s a breezy, delightful potpourri of romance, comedy, tragedy and history that offers something for every Shakespearean aficionado.

Other Info: One of the lesser performed works in the Bard’s canon, this rendition of Antony and Cleopatra belies its secondary status in popularity. While its two acts approach three hours, Shakespeare Festival’s telling of this eternal love story is smoothly paced and leavened throughout with liberal doses of comedy.

Antony is a womanizer and Cleopatra is a shameless hedonist. Yet, or perhaps because of those traits, they seem a good match for one another. Their strong physical attraction gets the presentation off to a rousing start thanks to the fine efforts of Jay Stratton and Shirine Babb in the title roles. Each of them infuses their characters with a lust for life that challenges the very structure of empires.

Artistic and executive director Rick Dildine writes in his program notes that the cast of Antony and Cleopatra “is performing on a brand new staging platform that is more efficient and environmentally friendly.” It’s a handsome plateau, to be sure, and its downward slope enhances the effect of players entering from any side to the main thrust of the action.

The set is further stylized with Scott Neale’s quintet of austere, imposing, obelisk-type columns, four in the back that signify the Roman triumvirate equal to one unified leader and a fifth set apart for Cleopatra’s domain. They’re all sheathed in a gold laminate that is bathed in starkly accentuated colors brought to the fore both by natural sunlight and, after sundown, with John Wylie’s beautiful lighting design.

Dottie Marshall Englis adorns the players in richly evocative costumes that bring the 40 B.C. era to life, as does Rusty Wandall’s blend of sounds that alternate between the bellicose and the romantic. Strains of alluring Middle Eastern melodies fill Greg Mackender’s infectious musical score, while Meg Brinkley’s properties suggest anything from venomous snakes to soldierly revelry.

An unnamed special effects artisan wowed the audience on opening night with some behind-the-scenes naval war ‘action’ that sent water cascading into the front rows propelled by a booming battle. Fight choreographer Paul Dennhardt enlivens proceedings with some engaging physical combat, while voice and text coach Suzanne Mills makes sure the players speak the Bard’s poetry with clear, convincing diction.

Doing stellar work in supporting roles are local performers Alan Knoll as Cleopatra’s eunuch advisor Mardian, Kari Ely as her fun-loving handmaiden Charmian and Gary Glasgow as the low-key ruler Lepidus. Michael James Reed is polished and Reginald Pierre lends his clarion, booming voice to the roles of Caesar’s soldiers Agrippa and Maecenas, respectively.

Moses Villarama is humorous as Antony’s unfairly attacked messenger Eros, Charles Pasternak is commanding as the no-nonsense Octavius and Raina Houston is effective both as Cleopatra’s handmaiden Iras and the ignored Octavia. Conan McCarty handles the humor and pathos of Antony’s right-hand man Enobarbus, and Matt Lytle is the combative Pompey. Jesse Munoz, Ryan Jacobs, Bernell Lassai III and Robert Riordan capably fill smaller parts.

Antony and Cleopatra isn’t Shakespeare at his most profound. In Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’ sparkling presentation, though, it’s a little of everything that Will did so well entertaining and informing his audiences more than four centuries ago. And you can’t beat the price.

P.S. Take time when you attend the Festival to check out beforehand the 20-minute “Green Stage” version of Antony and Cleopatra adapted and directed by Michael Perkins. It’s performed enthusiastically by the Festival’s teen ensemble, the Shakespeare Squadron.

Members of the troupe are Vickie Williams and Magnolia Mulvihill (Antony), Cait Redman and Molly Perling (Cleopatra), Sam Buchholz and Zoey Menard (Octavius Caesar), Sophe Hurwitz and Max Farris (Enobarbus), Clara Parker and Gwen Farris (Lepidus/Dolabella), Gaela Jenks and Ivy Bell Reed (Agrippa/Canidius), Eliza Hurwitz and Dominique Silva (Octavia/Ventidius), Paisley Sessen and Gabe Mead (Eros/Soothsayer/Clown), Charlotte Wiland and Lydia Perling (Charmian) and Ella Farmer and Josephine Shifrin (Iras).

Play: Antony and Cleopatra

Group: Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Venue: Shakespeare Glen in Forest Park near the Art Museum

Dates: Through June 14 (except Tuesdays)

Tickets: Free admission

Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.

Photos courtesy of David Levy