One of theater’s great pleasures involves savoring the way imaginative artists can conjure large-scale, complex worlds using relatively simple techniques.
A small cast grows larger as actors play two or three roles each. A piece of silk transforms from a queen’s canopy to a ship’s sail to the bedspread covering frenzied lovers. A narrow ribbon of shimmering water serves as a bath, a site for religious ritual and the road to the afterlife.
Director-adaptor Tarell Alvin McCraney and his collaborators work that magic and more on William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, in a version now getting its U.S. debut at Miami Beach’s Colony Theatre. The $2.1 million production is the work of South Florida’s GableStage, Great Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company (where it ran in November) and New York’s Public Theater (the show heads north after its monthlong Miami Beach run).
Asked for a “radical edit” of the Bard’s lengthy hybrid of history play and tragedy, McCraney trimmed the original, moved some speeches and gave the drama a new context by placing it in 18th century Haiti and France on the eve of the slave revolution.
How meaningful that last decision is will be different for each audience member. Movement director Gelan Lambert, composer Michael Thurber and designer Tom Piper evoke Haitian culture through dance, music and costumes. The play incorporates some of the visuals and practices of Voudou, and Cleopatra and her court speak Creole-accented English, though the “French” characters speak with British accents.
Still, McCraney doesn’t alter the play’s references to Mark Antony’s Rome and Cleopatra’s Egypt, so verbal and visual cues can be at odds.
Yet anyone who comes prepared to this Antony and Cleopatra (do read the summary in the program) , anyone who surrenders to its fast-paced, impressively acted story, will be rewarded. The play is yet another reminder of Shakespeare’s timelessness and his deep understanding of human nature. Unsurprisingly, given the budget, companies and talents involved, this is also a Shakespearean production of a quality seldom seen in South Florida.
As the play’s tempestuous lovers, Jonathan Cake and Joaquina Kalukango thoroughly suggest that the conquering warrior and his capricious queen are passionately addicted to each other.
The British Cake, who speaks Shakespeare’s lines with illuminating ease, richly evokes the multiple facets of Antony’s character, including his stubborn cockiness, lust for political power and penchant for betraying the women in his life. Kalukango, an American actor, adopts a Creole accent that sometimes muddies her words. But she effectively explores a youthful Cleopatra’s complexities — her calculation and manipulation, her furious jealousy, her allure, her changeable nature.
As Antony’s follower Enobarbus, Chukwudi Iwuji is both stirring character and enlightening narrator, helping the audience navigate the shifts in action between Egypt and Rome (or Haiti and France). Playing a slight, emotionally stiff Octavius Caesar, Samuel Collings is at first Mark Antony’s dismissive fellow Roman ruler, then his politically expedient brother-in-law, then his conquering enemy.
Former Miamian Charise Castro Smith demonstrates her versatility as Octavia (Caesar’s sister/Antony’s wife) and Iras, Cleopatra’s caring attendant. Ash Hunter is the rakish, doomed rebel Pompey. Chivas Michael is by turns amusing and haunting as Mardian, Cleopatra’s eunuch, and as a Soothsayer whose news for Antony isn’t what the once-noble ruler wants to hear. Sarah Niles, Henry Stram and Ian Lassiter round out the British-American cast.
McCraney, a recent MacArthur “genius grant” winner, has spoken often of his love of Shakespeare and his determination to share that love with hometown Miami audiences, including the thousands of students who will see Antony and Cleopatra at morning matinees. With his bold, action-packed production at the Colony, he is sharing his passion in a way that enriches theater in South Florida.