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A Tale Of Two Cleopatras

June 27, 1987|JANICE ARKATOV

She's wearing a heavy crown, commanding great wealth and beauty, managing an empire; she's willful, spoiled, loving too much, contemplating asps. She's Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile in "Antony and Cleopatra"--and currently, two actresses are playing her: JoBeth Williams in San Diego's Old Globe staging, and, beginning Friday, Rosalind Cash at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.

"I was looking for something larger than myself, to take me out of my own personal problems," Williams explained. "When I reread the play, I was fascinated by the humanity. It's about a mature love relationship, something I've been through. Also, it's two people with powerful careers who have to balance those choices. As someone doing a balancing act in my own life, making compromises--and realizing later that you always pay for them--I was drawn to her."

The actress was also attracted by the changes her character undergoes: "At the beginning, she's used to having things her own way, thinks she loves more than (Antony), is a mistress pregnant by him, knows Rome may call at any moment and she'll lose him. But as the play continues, she finds out he loves her as much as she loves him--and it changes her, allows her to do something at the end which is courageous and noble.

"I also identify with having a certain amount of privacy gone, adapting your life to accommodate the public. People do come looking at me in a very particular way. I got a fan letter from a 17-year-old who said she came 'because I loved you in "Poltergeist." But when I got there I didn't see JoBeth: her face, her voice. At first I was disappointed--but after a while, I loved it.' "

Williams is clearly warmed by the response. "The first time I read the play I was so excited and afraid: 'Can I throw myself into this, see what happens and just be outrageous?' That's what you miss in TV and movies. Sure, it's a daunting role--Sarah Bernhardt did it. But you can't think about that; you've just got to make it yours. The wonderful thing about a part like this is that you can play it so many ways--and they'll all be right."

She won't get any argument on that from Rosalind Cash.

"Actually, I wasn't sure I wanted to do this," Cash admitted. "I had other things on my mind (a fledgling one-woman show). But they kept after me. Finally, I auditioned (for director Tony Richardson) and he said, 'I'd like you to do this part.' I hadn't heard that for a while. Once I decided on it, I got real interested. I began to do research. I got ready. I wanted to bring a sense of myself and my culture, being linked to the (Middle) East. An African queen--and celebrating that.

"I have nothing to compare it to," she added. "I'd never read it before, never seen it. Anyway, I'm more focused on doing the role well. If I stay there, I'm in a good space. Once I start thinking, 'How am I doing? Is this right? Am I serving the medium?,' I get fragmented, lose my concentration. So I have to get out of my own way, lose Rosalind, let the part take over. I've got to do the work, the study, remember all those lines--you can't trip over your tongue. And there's so much space to fill up."

She describes her Cleopatra as "extremely vivacious, full of life, passionate, of course. Moody, moody, moody . A woman in love, a queen who's very powerful." How does she relate to that? "I feel that I have power and that I come from a long line of queens. The feeling has less to do with what manifests itself materially, but a feeling of power, a feeling of dignity, of control or lack of control--because at the end, she says, 'I'm nothing but a woman.' Then, too, you can use your imagination; you can pretend."

One aspect of the LATC production that Cash is perfectly comfortable with is its biracial cast: the Egyptians are played by black actors, the Romans by whites (Mitchell Ryan is Marc Antony).

"It never felt like a gimmick, because I don't think I'm a gimmick," she said. "I don't think black people are gimmicks. When someone says they want to hire a black actor in this town--as long as it's not a derogatory role--that's an honorable thing. Anyway, I'd always thought Cleopatra was black. So to continually see her cast as a non-black is a disservice. Never once did I feel devalued; (instead, Richardson) saw the value.

"Perhaps he saw a different vibration that might come out of it--not better or worse--but it has to do with culture. Why not cast a black actress, an African-American actress as Cleopatra? Why not? I'd never do anything to bring shame on me or my people. I'm concerned about that; it's very important to me. But I don't think this is for shock value--it's theater . Whenever you do anything a little different, people will be shocked or delighted, turned off or numbed. I say, 'Do it.' Perhaps it's not safe. Well, who wants to be safe?"

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