Of all the historic masterworks in the Shakespeare canon, Antony and Cleopatra might be the least likely play to appear in a given company's season, for a simple reason: It's really hard to do.
The play, written in 1606, dramatizes nothing less than the collapse of Rome's triumvirate and the establishment of its empire in the years leading to the birth of Christ. The centerpiece of the corpse-strewn narrative is the Roman triumvir Mark Antony's torrid affair with the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. In Shakespeare's original vision, elaborate battle scenes and intimidating sets and special effects abound, as do a number of unusually short, staccato scenes that foreshadow cinematic cross-cutting.
A company would need much creativity and a hefty budget to realize Shakespeare's intent. In a review of a 1953 production in the United Kingdom, scholar Clifford Leech noted the play seems to "defy production," while historian Margaret Lamb has said Antony "is always in danger of becoming what King Lear was before the 1930s: a play too great to do perfectly, and so too often left on the shelf."
So, does director Tarell Alvin McCraney do Antony and Cleopatra perfectly in the Miami-bred playwright's new "edit" of the historical epic? I'm not sure the source material itself quite achieves perfection. But to borrow a phrase from the Founding Fathers, it is undoubtedly "more perfect" than most.
Mounted at the Colony Theatre and coproduced by GableStage, Stratford-upon-Avon's Royal Shakespeare Company, and New York's Public Theatre, McCraney's take on the other star-crossed lovers sidesteps many of the problems associated with presenting Antony in decades past. He achieves this by amplifying the abstract, self-conscious style familiar to audiences of McCraney's GableStage productions such as The Brothers Size and his one-act Hamlet. Rather than construct sets for Egypt and Rome, designer Tom Piper created a catch-all pair of columns positioned in front of a multipurpose cement wall and pool of water. It could be anywhere or nowhere. A curtain hangs overhead, and per McCraney's economic style, it eventually doubles as a ship's mast and a bedsheet.
Despite the text constantly referring to Rome and Alexandria, the show's promotional materials have long testified that the setting is actually Haiti on the brink of that country's revolution in the 18th Century. This manifests itself in the play's music -- a three-piece band, cleverly perched on a balcony, performs live throughout the show -- and some of the wardrobe and prop choices. But it's a muddled assertion. Haiti is more a state of mind than a state of place, and McCraney's decision to have it both ways -- to suggest Haiti while otherwise remaining faithful to Shakespeare's historical period -- is one of his few experiments that isn't fully realized.
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But otherwise, his decision to suture his personality into Shakespeare's is more than welcome, helping revive an ancient text for the modern, moviegoing sensibility. Scene transitions are signified by nothing more than actors walking offstage and others walking on, creating the illusion of cinematic seamlessness. For their first onstage encounter, Antony and his chief antagonist, Octavius Caesar, stare each other down while flanked by other noblemen, as in the climax of a Sergio Leone Western. When Antony orders a character whipped for his insolent request to kiss Cleopatra's hand, we see the lashing in the background while an unrelated drama commences in the foreground, as in deep-focus photography. And every now and then, tribal songs and dances break out like irrepressible bursts of punctuation: One drunken ceremonial dance among the triumvirs and their followers is a cauldron of celebration, rivalry, and homoeroticism, an uneasy peace on the precipice of disintegration.
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