Real-life couple act together for first time

Rohan Preston, The Star Ledger

January 20, 2002

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Laila "Cleopatra" Robins and Robert "Antony" Cuccioli
Photo: Joey McLeister
Star Tribune

In "Antony and Cleopatra," the Roman statesman and the Egyptian queen have a torrid, tempestuous affair marked by lies, betrayal and death.

It is a tragedy full of sex and violence that real-life couple Robert Cuccioli and Laila Robins, the title players in the Guthrie Theater's first production of the Shakespearean drama, would not like to emulate.

"It's an interesting crossing of our lives and the lives of our characters," Cuccioli said Tuesday at the Guthrie. "We are trying to have a healthy relationship [offstage] even as we have to dredge up all this stuff in the play. Thankfully, our life together has a lot less drama."

Robins and Cuccioli, who stared at each other with clear intensity during the interview, join a short list of couples playing opposite each other at the nation's largest regional playhouse. Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn acted together a number of times at the Guthrie, including in "Foxfire" in the 1981-82 season.

On screen, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton played Cleopatra and Antony -- in performances as memorable as their two later marriages to each other.

The double helix of personal lives intersecting with characters' lives marks the first time that Robins and Cuccioli, who have been dating for two years, have worked together.

"I was nervous about putting our relationship out there like that, that it would take attention away from the characters, away from the work," said Robins, a St. Paul native and Yale School of Drama graduate. "I was also nervous about being too hard on him; I can be hard on my leading man. I guess this has made me more understanding."

She is woman, hear her roar

According to Greek historian Plutarch, Cleopatra was a paramour of both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. The Egyptian ruler has been the subject of intense fascination from antiquity to the present, and there now is a major exhibit focusing on her at Chicago's Field Museum.

The Minneapolis production of "Antony and Cleopatra," directed by former Guthrie acting-company member Mark Lamos, will be a full-bore period affair, with costumes by Jane Greenwood and a set designed by Ming Cho Lee. There also will be plenty of wigs.

"Acting is hair; that's my motto," Robins said with a laugh.

More seriously, she is intrigued by Cleopatra's clout.

"I guess I'm interested in her because she was a woman ruler in a primitive time; she had power to say, 'Off with your head,' " she said. "She was a leader who mixed her masculine and feminine sides."

It also was a treacherous time of spies and assassins. Cleopatra found a way to rule by assuming the posture, dress and style of the Egyptian deity Isis. The fashionable queen was no airhead, however; she could speak 11 languages.

"She had a sense of the pageantry of things, of how to influence people," Robins said. "That's an ingenious way for her to live in a time when, if you were not married to your own brothers and sisters, they were trying to kill you."

For Robins, who has memorably played two oppressed, lonely women at the Guthrie -- chafing songbird Alma in Tennessee Williams' "Summer and Smoke" and the stifled wife in Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler" -- her current role is both "a relief and an honor."

"Cleopatra is so on the sleeve; she expresses everything," Robins said. "And she is such a complex woman, responsible for a nation, looking out for her son's succession. Alma and Hedda were so alone. I remember thinking before, I just want to do a play where I get the guy."

She laughed.

"Yes, but then you die," Cuccioli interjected. "See you in heaven, babe."

Two songs, one passion

Cuccioli and Robins met while performing in a benefit for the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival. He was to sing "This Is the Moment." She was to sing "Bridge Over Troubled Water."

"And thus it began," he said in mock stentorian cadences.

"When I first met Bob, he was so schmaltzy, sentimental and sweet, I thought, that can't be for real," Robins said. "But he is."

"Antony and Cleopatra" marks Cuccioli's first appearance on the Guthrie stage. Best known for his work in musical theater, Cuccioli was nominated for a Tony Award for portraying both title characters in "Jekyll & Hyde" on Broadway. He tossed his hair to the left for Jekyll, to the right for alter-ego Hyde.

When he played Antony last year -- his hair cut -- for the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, it was his first encounter with Shakespeare.

"This has given me an opportunity to deepen him," he said of his character. "I'm an advocate for him, a defender of this guy, who is not a bad character. I just have to understand him and make others do; that's the fun, the challenge."

Added Robins: "Cleopatra and Antony are intensely in love with each other, and it transcends time and space. That's the kind of intensity that you have to work to get at onstage. It's nice to have someone like Bob to project that onto."

IF YOU GO

Antony and Cleopatra

Who: By William Shakespeare. Directed by Mark Lamos with stars Robert Cuccioli and Laila Robins.

When: Previews 7 p.m. Sun., 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Thu. Opens 7:30 p.m. Fri. The play has a changing performance schedule thru its closing on Feb. 24. Call the box office for specific dates and times.

Where: Guthrie Theater, Vineland Place, Mpls.

Tickets: $16-$44. 612-377-2224.

Copyright 2002 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.

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