Shakespeare Festival St. Louis will celebrate its 15th anniversary in epic fashion: Elaborate costumes and emotional drama will take centerstage in Forest Park’s Shakespeare Glen when the beloved troupe presents the tragedy of Antony & Cleopatra.
“For our 15th year, we wanted something that felt epic and timeless,” says Rick Dildine, artistic and executive director. “When we were looking through (The Bard’s) titles, Antony and Cleopatra jumped out immediately. People know them as individuals, but are unaware of the power this couple held as two heads of state having this open, adulterous relationship.”
This year’s 80-member cast and crew is set to outdo itself once again with a production of massive scale. “For every one person you see onstage, there are four people behind them,” Dildine notes.
Among the many challenges of this 42-scene play is depicting two vastly different geographic areas in which the tale takes place: Egypt and Rome. The festival team is achieving this feat with a simple set of five gold pillars on a ramped black backdrop that lets the costumed characters tell the story. “It’s as if the actors are floating off the ground,” Dildine muses.
Come opening night, an array of stunning costumes and dazzling jewels will shine under the moonlight: blue, white and gold garments representing Egypt; and red and purple garb standing for Rome.
Shakespeare Festival invited Ladue News for an exclusive sneak peek as the show's star, Shirine Babb, was fitted for her regal ensembles.
Colorful costumes are crucially important in this venue, helping the crowd identify which side each character is on, Dildine notes. “The closest audience member is about 30 feet away, and the farthest can be 50 yards.”
Each of the 17 cast members has at least two costumes, with three unique looks for the show’s female lead, Cleopatra. “After all, she is the richest woman in the world,” notes costume designer Dottie Englis, who designed costumes for four past festivals, including its first play, Romeo & Juliet, in 2001. Cleopatra’s elaborate stylings will include a sleek cream dress and headband; a fierce warrior outfit of gold armor; and the stunning showstopper: an electric blue silk gown, complete with a golden corset, cuffs and crown, and capped off with a sweeping electric blue and white-lined cape.
The design crew split into two teams to take on the Roman and Egyptian fashions, with the first members beginning full-time work hours in early April. The months-long, multistage design process includes vivid sketches of the garments, patterning, stitching and several fittings with the actors, Englis says. The most difficult part has proved to be the construction of the battle armor for Antony and his soldiers, crew members note. The costumes are delicate and breathable for the summer heat, but also must be durable enough for the lengthy performance schedule, Englis notes.
Another challenge for this year’s team is backstage logistics. For the first time, the set will not have a rear wall—only netting. “Backstage really is its own production,” Dildine notes. From quick costume changes to microphone issues and battling the elements—they hope to avoid, but plan ahead for every possible problem that may arise.
With an experienced crew and a high-caliber cast, Dildine is certain that the only drama will be onstage. “We are so lucky to have Shirine as our Cleopatra. She is one of the leading classical actresses in the nation,” Dildine says. And Jay Stratton, who plays Antony, is a powerful actor, he adds. “They are a good match.”
To experience all the drama firsthand, head to Forest Park’s Shakespeare Glen for nightly 8 p.m. performances (except Tuesdays) from May 22 to June 14, and preview plays on May 20 and 21.