Much of the weight and buoyancy of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra is lost in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s new adaptation, now playing at the Public Theater in a co-production with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Florida’s GableStage. Incorporating actors from each company, McCraney has directed and edited one of the Bard’s least categorizable works, an intriguingly elusive tragic quasi-history.
With the play’s ancient Roman-Egyptian setting transposed uneasily to address themes of Haiti’s colonization by France, McCraney’s production grafts a new cultural vocabulary onto Shakespeare’s original setting with uneasy results. Caribbean music and dance distract from rather than enhance the text. Over the course of the evening, a cast of ten plays nearly thirty roles, which, though cost-effective, only serves to confuse an audience. In one scene, an actor’s throat is slit, but he’s back again ten minutes later in nearly the same costume playing a different role with almost nothing to distinguish him from his now-offed former character.
All this might be forgiven if the cast were truly up to snuff. Unfortunately, Jonathan Cake’s Mark Antony lacks the gravitas the role requires, as does Joaquina Kalukango’s underpowered Cleopatra. Though both are attractive and amiable, neither fills a leader’s shoes sufficiently — they’re human-sized, not larger-than-life. The play is essentially a three-way face-off between Rome’s rulers — Octavian, Marcus Aemillus Lepidus, and Marc Antony (who’s distracted by Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt). With some of the play’s more extended lyrical moments cut, the focus in this production is mainly on action. The political machinations of the play, if presented in a clearer interpretation, would maintain a swift momentum. It’s a shame then, that the plot is made so convoluted by the actors’ quick switches between characters and McCraney’s unfocused direction, which features the kind of sloppy meandering on- and offstage that one has come to expect of inexperienced directors.
Though the music of the production feels largely out of place, it sounds nice nevertheless as put across by the play’s ensemble, led by Chivas Michael, who plays three roles throughout and is a standout, adding a much-needed slice of humor and musical talent to the proceedings. Samuel Collings is also impressive as Octavius Caesar, turning in one of those sturdy Shakespearean performances we’ve come to expect from the Brits, a welcome relief here within a cast whose styles intermingle less harmoniously than desired. Rather than hitting the heights of Sam Mendes’s Bridge Project at BAM several seasons back, where Britons and Americans were strategically cast in roles that suited their individual strengths, McCraney’s production mixes together acting styles with little thought for their overall harmony.
With a clear desire to reinterpret Shakespeare’s text, one wishes McCraney (an immensely talented playwright in his own right) had taken one of two different approaches, either by writing his own entirely new script as a departure from the original text (in his one unique, engaging style) or by taking an even bolder, more radical approach to the text that felt a little harder than this tropical island daiquiri of a production. As it stands, what’s on display is a distinctly dissatisfying take on an age-old play that deserves better than this second-rate remix. Like a dance hit that’s been played out and then reinterpreted by the latest DJ, we can still hear the original tune that stuck like an earworm in our heads — unfortunately though, most of the original pleasure is lost, drowned out amongst the noise.