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By Bill Hirschman
Just as Shakespeare’s Elizabethan poetry nestles surprisingly smoothly in the musical cadences of Caribbean characters, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s vision transplanting Antony and Cleopatra to 18th Century Haiti under Napoleonic occupation is less jarring and more intriguing than doubters might expect.
Instead, McCraney’s choice ensures that an exotic vitality vibrates through this landmark co-production of GableStage, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Public Theater, exciting the imagination with a visceral rather than cerebral approach.
Afro-Caribbean music surges through the proceedings. Polished armor is laid alongside a voodoo doll. The famed lovers speak their ardor while intertwining their limbs and sensuously pressing their loins together.
The audience need not be able to follow every twist in the Byzantine political maneuverings that are integral to what most people mistakenly recall solely as a romantic tragedy. McCraney, the internationally acclaimed playwright who has edited the dialogue and reordered the structure, has directed this stripped down version to accentuate the universally relatable passions of the players.
Purists may blanch at how freely he has adapted the text, but he has not violated the Bard’s language and he has done all with a view to honoring Shakespeare’s intent. A 3 ½-hour play is now nearly 2 ½ hours. Enobarbus, a secondary character, becomes one of the leads as McCraney uses him as a narrator to clarify where we are and what’s happening. And Enobarbus opens the play with the description of Cleopatra’s flamboyant entrance on her barge, a speech that Shakespeare put in Act 2 Scene 2. But it’s a brilliant stroke to both set the tone of the play and quote a bit of verse that folks might recognize. It’s the same thing he did in last winter’s Hamlet at GableStage when he moved Act 3’s “to be or not to be” speech to the opening of the play.
McCraney, who wants to build a winter Shakespeare festival in his hometown of Miami, was asked by the RSC to do a “radical edit” of the play. With an eye to bringing the show to the multi-cultural Miami, he explored the analog between the periods: imperialistic entitled Rome and upstart hedonistic Egypt, comparing it with colonial France in the 1790s as it occupied Haiti a few years before its revolution. The vision of a Napoleonic officer in his tunic adorned by epaulets colliding with a chocolate-skinned beauty in flowing white robes feels valid enough not to be distracting, if not an essential interpretation.
But that vector allowed McCraney to apply his love of stylized, sensory staging which augments visual imagery with an aural soundscape. His bare bones approach also dovetails with what is an astronomical budget for a Florida production but a modest one for the other two producers, $700,000 each. One example, a play with 34 speaking parts plus a dozen spearcarriers is done here with 10 people playing 16 roles. The physical elements of sets, lights and sound are imaginatively evocative rather than lushly incarnating the pomp and scope that has marked more epic mountings.
Perhaps scope is the single troublesome shortcoming that is terribly difficult to identify; indeed, something is naggingly absent from an otherwise admirable production. You feel it as actors double and triple roles making it sometimes hard to figure out who they are at any one moment. Battle scenes are barely credible with three or four people on stage. Whatever it is, something’s missing.
Yet McCraney and designer Tom Piper have an undeniable flair for the visual metaphor such as a flow of water at the back of the set which doubles as the site of sea battles and a Styx-like venue to the next world.
McCraney has also paced the production wisely. With less verbiage to heft about, he allows his actors to breathe and invest fervor and clarity in what’s left. Only in the last two acts, as events spin out of control into the realm of life and death, do the words flow like a torrent.
There are very few missteps like the risible moment when Antony, after grunting with pain after falling on his sword, says, “How! Not dead?”
The production has an Anglo-American multi-ethnic cast and crew drawn from New York and London including Brit Jonathan Cake as the smitten Napoleonic warrior and American Joaquina Kalukango as the Queen of Santo Domingo. They are a study in contrasts: Cake’s tall rough-hewn hunk with an English accent and Kalukango’s diminutive young beauty with a lilting Caribbean voice. Their coupling is more carnal than other portrayals, but their underlying devotion is unquestionable.
Also atypically, and perhaps here’s another shortcoming, they feel like neither the culprits of this tragedy or its victims, just players. So it’s difficult for some audience members to connect with them as their world disintegrates around them.
Kalukango’s Cleopatra never seems like royalty until she gains gravitas after Antony’s death and faces her own suicide. But Kalukango creates such a vibrant, engaging lifeforce that it’s not hard to see why Antony is attracted to her.
Cake portrays a hubristic soldier unaccustomed to being out of his depth who responds first by doing his duty to Rome but eventually becomes recklessly selfish as if there will be no consequences. In several places. Cake has Antony, the man of action, seem to search for the right words to express himself as he discovers he is neither infallible nor invulnerable.
The rest of the cast is uniformly solid, but especially notable is Samuel Collings’ Octavius Caesar, the politician always one step removed from everything so he can assesses the most deft move; and Chukwudi Iwuji as the wryly intelligent observer Enobarbus. Charise Castro Smith, a fellow New World School of the Arts grad of McCraney’s, plays Cleopatra’s handmaiden Iras and Octavia, Caesar’s sister married off to Antony to lure him from Cleopatra.
The production team whose work has been melded by McCraney create a unique multi-element environment from Piper’s set of marbled columns, arches and tiles fluidly lit by Stephen Strawbridge, to the music by Michael Thurber played by Akintayo Akinbode, Chris Bonlli and Sandy Poltarack. Especially notable is the movement choreographed by former Miamian Gelan Lambert Jr., who danced around the world in the musical Fela! McCraney has interjected scenes of celebration that Lambert has staged from Antony’s stately wedding to Octavia to a drunken revel among the politicians.
For all the changes and stylistic trappings, McCraney’s take doesn’t feel as radical it sounds. The audience is still left with the indelible image of the two lovers on their knees grappling together in a kiss and them melding into one person, heedless in their ardor as inexorable forces are arraying to destroy them.
A bit of advice: This is a history play that depicts people buffeted by world-shaking wars and power plays. Even though the playbill has a short synopsis of the play, audiences would benefit from spending five minutes online to brush up on the play’s plot and the participants’ plotting.
This production bowed at the Swan Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon in November and will play the Public for five weeks beginning Feb. 18. To accommodate logistics, GableStage, which normally operates out of the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, presents this at the Colony Theater on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach
Antony and Cleopatra runs Jan. 9-Feb. 9 from GableStage performing at the Colony Theater, 1040 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach. Public 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday (except Jan. 11). Other performances reserved for high school students. Runs 2 hours 20 minutes not counting intermission. Tickets $65 plus $1 facility fee at the Colony Theater or $7.60 fee added through Ticketmaster. For single tickets, visit Colony box office in person or call Ticketmaster (800) 745-3000 or visit www.ticketmaster.com. For group sales or more information, call (305) 445-1119 or visit GableStage.org.
For a feature on GableStage, McCraney and the production, click here.
For a photo gallery of the RSC production, click here.
To see a RSC trailer of the production, click here.
To see a video interview with McCraney at the Public , click here.
To see a video of a scene in the last act of the RSC production, click here:
Earlier stories about the project and McCraney can be found at