Antony and Cleopatra Is McCraney's Masterpiece

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.

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.

McCraney couldn't have corralled a more peerless ensemble of international actors to translate his idiosyncrasies. Across the board, this ensemble's mastery of Shakespearean dialogue, combined with the propensity for modern-day body language, is a lesson in craft. Even when Shakespeare's turns of phrase baffle, the actors sell them with such verisimilitude that they fill the gaps in diction and meaning. It's no small feat that every one of them acts as a three-dimensional person and not as a historical figure chiseled in marble.

Of the supporting players in this cast of ten — who play up to 18 parts collectively — I was taken with Henry Stram as Proculeius, a messenger to the volcanic Cleopatra whose reports on Antony's affairs in Rome are delivered with fear and trembling. Cheeks crimson, lips aquiver, he's the picture of milquetoast trepidation in the presence of an unpredictable monarch. Chivas Michael draws heartbreaking pathos from his trio of roles, especially in the part of Eros, Antony's effeminate servant turned would-be assassin, harrowingly changing his register from fey to steely. And as Antony's BFF — and the play's occasional narrator — Enobarbus, Chukwudi Iwuji is the production's unsung hero, anchoring the action when emotions roil and spittle flies.

As for the title characters, it doesn't get much better than the contributions from Jonathan Cake and Joaquina Kalukango. The latter has the play's most difficult portrayal, given that Shakespeare's petty, melodramatic, bipolar Cleopatra is one of his most divisive creations, a borderline offensive shrew even in "perfect" productions. But Kalukango brings a wry self-awareness to the part, elevating Cleopatra's mercurial whims to high comedy. She's an actress playing an actress, and she knows it and owns it. Cake plays his part as a keg-tapping dervish of outsize passion and sexual proclivity, perhaps closer to the mythical Dionysius than the historical Antony.

Antony and Cleopatra's bond is a fractious one, and Kalukango and Cake play up their relationship like the sort of couple that shouldn't be together, except the sex is so hot. They are oil and water that sometimes mix, and when they do, the chemistry is palpable.

After some two and a half hours, when their mutual death spirals finally commence, the double suicide plays out with such uncomfortable protraction that we begin to feel like voyeurs at an execution, overstaying our bleak welcome. At one point, when Antony's initial self-inflicted sword thrust fails to strike him dead, McCraney and Cake find humor in the result, a moment of Mel Brooks-esque farce at the apex of Shakespeare's tragedy. Decisions such as that one help to not only resuscitate a play most companies wouldn't attempt, but also replace it with a strange and fascinating new heart.

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John Thomason