Charmian: Here is a rural fellow
That will not be denied your highness’ presence:
He brings you figs.
Cleopatra: He brings me liberty.
We have a snake in our play, and his name is Figs.
Actually, Figgs. Barnabas Phiggs, Esquire, to some, though I prefer Figgs. He’s a ball python, 30 inches long and about 2 1/2 inches across at his widest, and he’s beautiful. He is on loan to our production from the Maine Herpetological Society, reachable at their somewhat dubiously-titled website, http://www.maineherp.org/.
We met Figgs a week ago. Opera House Arts Artistic Director Judith Jerome came to rehearsal to introduce us to him, and go over the basics of snake handling. I should say that none of us–including the herpetologist who delivered him–actually know what Figgs’ gender is. He might be a girl. The process for determining the sex of a snake is reportedly “invasive,” and involves either “popping” to expose the “hemapenes,” or “probing” to determine the size of certain internal areas. That may be how Virginia Republicans like to do it, but it’s not how I was raised! Let’s call Figgs a fellow and leave his hemapenes alone.
Antony & Cleopatra features what is possibly the most famous–“spoiler alert”–death by snakebite of all time. Shortly after Antony’s suicide, Caesar’s goons take Cleopatra captive and confine her in her monument, frustrating her plan to kill herself and join Antony in death. Thus, despite having spent much of her reign studying painless ways to die, Cleopatra finds herself sans suicidal equipment. With the help of her beloved attendant Charmian, she outwits Caesar’s guards by having a local yokel deliver a basket of figs to the monument. The figs conceal poisonous asps to which Cleopatra presents her breasts– thus presenting centuries of artists with an irresistibly alluring subject.
Historians from Plutarch to Stacey Schiff (whose excellent biography of Cleopatra was a must read at the start of my research) have cautioned that the snake story may be an invention of the poets. “The truth of the matter no one knows,” said Plutarch. He also supposes that the asp bit Cleopatra in the arm. By the time Shakespeare wrote his play, common knowledge had embraced the far more enticing wisdom that boobies were involved.Now back to our snake. Figgs was chosen for our production in part because ball pythons are not poisonous and are generally docile. If they feel threatened they will curl in on themselves–literally into a ball; hence the name. They have another name, though: The Royal Python. According to Judith, they got this nickname because Cleopatra used to wear them as bracelets. Figgs certainly seems happy to coil around my forearm and just hang out there. Imagine the Queen of the Nile presenting you with her hand to kiss– “a hand that kings have lipped, and trembled kissing”–you take her hand and place your lips, an inch or two from the glittering eyes and flickering tongue of THAT’S NOT A BRACELET THAT’S A LIVE SNAKE. In one gesture a declaration of power, a show of fearlessness, a royal prank, a come-hither, dangerous dare. Naturally, the moment Figgs and I got some time alone, we had a photo shoot. While Mark Antony and Enobarbus were busy rehearsing, the snake and I ran off to the dressing room for a little quality time. One mirror, one lightbulb, one camera, one snake, one girl…Here’s what happened. “”Oh god you’ve got a snake around your neck,” was how our gifted and succinct director, Craig Baldwin, summed up the photo shoot. Later he added, “all he’s thinking is, ‘can I eat you?'” He may be right. For now, I’m pretty sure I’m too big for that snake to eat. Pretty sure.
Anyway, Figgs and I are totes besties. After our photo shoot, we came back to rehearsal and ran his big scene at the end of the play–you know, the one where he bites me. He really delivered. As I put him back into his terrarium for the day, I told him he’s by far the best snake actor I’ve ever met. A total pro.
Let’s all praise Isis for the fact that Cleopatra wasn’t into spiders. After all, a girl’s gotta have some boundaries.
Update: I posted this, then stepped outside to enjoy the sun…whom should I find taking the sun in the grass by our driveway but this fellow:
Anyone know what kind of snake he is? I didn’t touch him, but was sorely tempted.