Near the beginning of GableStage's Antony and Cleopatra, which debuted last night at the Colony Theater, the audience is treated to a view of Marc Antony's (Jonathan Cake) nude buttocks.
It's an offbeat beginning to a Shakespeare play and, in several ways, sets the stage for one of the most intriguing -- if at times imperfect -- productions you'll see this year.
Cake dominates the show, which is directed by Miami's youngest and perhaps most illustrious genius, Tarell Alvin McCraney. All of the other actors are dwarfed by Cake's powerful onstage presence. He struts and frets and sobs and dances, and he's a train wreck that you can't forget or stop watching.
The play was produced by Stratford-on-Avon's Royal Shakespeare Company, New York's Public Theater, Ohio State University, and GableStage. During the next few weeks, it will not only be staged during evenings at the Colony, but also for thousands of Miami-Dade County school kids.
Despite one of my very favorite quotations: "My salad days / When I was green in judgment" this is not Shakespeare's best; it's a kind of Rocky 2 with Julius Caesar being the original. The Bard wrote it late in his career, and some of the roles are extraordinarily complex. It tells the story of the passion and intrigue between two of history's richest characters, the queen of the Nile, who loved Caesar before falling for his young protege, and Antony, a brilliant general who is portrayed in the history books and in Shakespeare as a party animal.
McCraney nevertheless chose to make it even more complex, by (kind of) staging it in Haiti. And he pretty much pulls it off. The music by Akintayo Akinbode is astounding -- some of the best I have ever heard in Shakespeare, with an operatic, island feel. The set and lighting by Tom Piper and Stephen Strawbridge are darn near perfect.
Though the play lasts almost three hours -- I hope they shorten it a bit and remove the butt for the school kids -- it is draws you in the entire time. It's Shakespeare, of course, so the complexity of the language is challenge at the start and the Colony's weird acoustics make this more difficult.
The plot in short is the following: Antony, one of three leaders of Rome called the triumvirate, and Cleopatra (Joaquina Kalukango) fall in love, but political intrigue gets in the way. Then they are attacked by Octavius Cesar, another of the triumvirs. Eventually -- no surprise here -- things end tragically.
Cake speaks clearly, which makes understanding his part easier as does Samuel Collings' brilliant Octavius Caesar and Chukwudi Iwuji's smart Enobarbus. Eros, played by Chivas Michael, is also a standout.
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Cleopatra is one of the Bard's most difficult characters, and Kalukango in this role is perhaps the production's most serious shortcoming. It's hard to understand her (she's saddled with an island accent that makes this particularly difficult) and her acting at times seems overwrought. Nevertheless, even she has solid moments throughout the play and deserves praise for taking on such an ambitious role.
We will publish a lengthier review of the play next week, but don't wait for that. Hurry out and see Antony and Cleopatra this weekend at the Colony. This is the boldest performance of the year by the city's best theater company. You won't regret attending.