“Antony and Cleopatra,”which is being given a colorful and ambitiously reworked production at the Public Theater, has a tragic/romantic ending reminiscent of “Romeo and Juliet,” and it features the same charismatic figure as the “lend me your ears” orator from “Julius Caesar.” So why has there been no production of this particular play by Shakespeare on Broadway since 1952?
The answer seems clear: Despite two intriguing central characters and some choice poetry, this is not one of the Bard’s crowd pleasers. The early-20th century Shakespearean scholar A.C. Bradley called it “the most faultily constructed of all the tragedies.” It is a sweeping and somewhat confusing history told over some 40 scenes, more scenes than any other Shakespearean play.
There are not likely to be many objections then — at least on this side of the Atlantic — to the idea of the revamped version that has opened at the Public, which is novel in several ways. It is a joint production of the Public with two other theaters that have already mounted it, the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon in the United Kingdom, and GableStage in Miami, Florida. Miami is the hometown of Tarell Alvin McCraney, who is credited as having directed and “edited” the play. McCraney, a new MacArthur “genius grant” recipient best known for his authorship of “Choir Boy” and “The Brother/Sister Plays,” calls what he’s done a “radical edit.” He changes the order of the scenes in “Antony and Cleopatra,” trims some of them, and — most noticeably — transposes the action from Ancient Egypt and Rome, to Haiti in the 18th century (then called Saint-Domingue) on the eve of its revolution from Napoleonic France. One knows of this change from the scenery, the costumes, the songs, the dancing, the allusions to Voodoo, and the Creole accents…. but not the text: The characters still talk of “Rome” and “Egypt.”
But it is indeed the Haitian frame that provides what’s most entertaining about this “Antony and Cleopatra.” A four-piece band, including Akintayo Akinbode’s infectious bongo playing, perform composer Michael Thurber Haitian-tinged music, which adds much to the interludes of singing, and to the sinuous and elegant Afro-Caribbean and French dancing choreographed by Gelan Lambert.
The cast hails from all three venues — Miami, New York, or England — and are impressive in their diversity. They are, however, uneven in their performances. It was hard to see Jonathan Cake’s Antony and Joaquino Kalukango’s Cleopatra as wily and powerful heads of state who command armies and rule empires. I also didn’t sense much chemistry between them until near the end — and the end is nearly three hours in coming, and I felt every minute of it. But the last few moments, helped along by set designer Tom Piper and lighting designer Stephen Strawbridge, are vivid.
McCraney has said how much, growing up poor in Miami, he benefitted from the programs that brought theater to schoolchildren like him. His “Antony and Cleopatra” seems a good production for school groups (providing, of course, that the tickets are subsidized)
Antony and Cleopatra
At the Public Theater
By William Shakespeare
Edited & Directed by Tarell Alvin McCraney
Cast: Jonathan Cake, Charise Castro-Smith,
Samuel Collings, Ash Hunter, Chukwudi Iwuji, Joaquina Kalukango, Ian Lassiter, Chivas Michael, Sarah Niles, Henry Stram
Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
Ticket prices: $40 to $80
“Antony and Cleopatra” is scheduled to run through March 23.