Wednesday, March 5, 2014

236. Review of ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA (March 4, 2014)


British actor Jonathan Cake, playing Mark Antony, shows plenty of beefcake in the first scene of this muddled revival of Shakespeare’s ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA, in the Anspacher Theatre at the Public, when he cavorts lasciviously with his sexual obsession, Cleopatra (Joaquina Kalukango), in what could be the steam baths of Alexandria. However, despite its being mentioned in the lines, Egypt is nowhere present in director Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s conception, which is set in a West Indies colonial outpost, where Cleopatra is the native queen, albeit with what sounds like a South African accent. (I could find no locale listed in the program, not even in the synopsis, but a press release says it's set in Saint-Domingue--Haiti's former name--on the eve of revolution.) The Romans are French colonists wearing 18th-century, heavily braided, long coats and tight pants.The idea of setting Shakespeare in such a world is not new, of course, going back at least to Orson Welles’s “Voodoo” MACBETH of 1936.

Joaquina Kalukango, Jonathan Cake. Photo: Joan Marcus.

            Mr. McCraney, like so many directors who think the way to make their mark on Shakespeare is to abandon all trust on entering his domain and do something conceptually daring (the “wouldn’t-it-be-fun-if” school of directing associated with Tyrone Guthrie), has taken many liberties with the text; his Playbill credit reads: “Edited and Directed by Tarrell Alvin McCraney.” Shakespeare’s large cast of 34 roles, which normally would include some doubling or even tripling among the minor characters, has here been cut exactly in half, with an acting company of 9 handling all 17 parts; five supporting actors play two or three roles each.

Enobarbus (Chukwudi Iwuji) has been made a sort of narrator whose duties include introducing each scene by naming its locale. This, however, is of little help since there are so many places in ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA things are bound to get confusing in any case. Tom Piper’s spare, three-quarters round, set of pillars, arches, sheer white curtains, and an upstage wading pool set in front of a cyclorama remains more or less the same throughout; there’s nary a scenic effect to tell you when you’re in “Rome,” “Egypt,” or wherever in the empire the action is supposed to be occurring. One gets the feeling it’s all the same place, with characters moving freely about in the ancient world on jet planes that allow them to traverse half the world in hours. There’s a small, raised area upstage left that serves as Cleopatra’s monument; when the dying Antony comes to her the tradition is for him to be raised to her higher level before he passes away. In this staging, however, surely because of sightline problems, Cleopatra is forced to come down to him instead.

From left: Samuel Collings, Charise Castro Smith, Henry Stram. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Aside from the colorful blue or red formal coats of the Romans, Mr. Piper’s costumes are mostly white and simple. Cleopatra, who usually offers a foundation for imaginative costuming, wears nothing that could be called extraordinary. This is a visually dull production of a play known for the opportunities it offers for spectacle. Even Shakespeare’s words, which allow us to imagine brilliant scenes such as no one could replicate, are given short shrift. Instead of letting Enobarbus’s famous speech describing Cleopatra floating in her barge down the Nile have its proper position in the play, when we can savor its vivid images, Mr. McCraney makes them into a prologue, having Enobarbus open the play with them as the actors do some insipid mime while they’re spoken. The surprise of hearing them where they don’t belong is enough to distract from what they’re saying.

Chukwudi Iwuji. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Physically, Mr. Cake is a very suitable Antony. He’s got the physique, presence, personality, and voice to make an ideal Roman hero. But he’s been directed to make his passion for Cleopatra so all-compelling that, when he’s not carousing or cruelly ordering a man to be whipped, he appears to have nothing on his mind but fondling, kissing, touching, humping, and otherwise expressing his sexual fixation. Of course, his lust is a crucial part of Antony’s problem, the reason that, despite his military prowess, he runs into so much trouble during this phase of his life. In Mr. Cake’s often over-acted portrayal, Antony appears little more than a whiny, petulant, arrogant, jealous, sadistic, joking, frat-boy debauchee, with none of the tragic stature associated with the role.

Joaquina Kalakungo, Jonathan Cake. Photo: Joan Marcus.

As Cleopatra, Ms. Kalukango, a diminutive actress in dreadlocks, hits many notes of anger, sensuality, peevishness, girlishness, ruthlessness, playfulness, and envy, and she displays considerable movement skill when the play requires her to dance to the rhythmic music composed by Michael Thurber, but she too never reaches her role’s tragic dimensions; she remains earthbound and, while colorful, rarely noble.

None of the supporting players does much to make you notice them very positively, only Antony seems someone who might actually be a warrior (even Enobarbus looks more like a dandy than a soldier), and the use of the same actors in multiple roles frequently makes it unclear just who they are. Seeing Cleopatra’s eunuch morph into Eros (Chivas Michael), the servant who chooses to take his own life rather than kill his master, is only one of the oddities one must accept. Many directorial choices can be questioned, including the idea of having the asps that will poison Cleopatra and her handmaidens brought on in a large, transparent jar of water (not Shakespeare's basket of figs), where their obvious phoniness is palpable. Cleopatra shoves her breast into the top of the jar but no asp jumps up to bite her, so perhaps we’re being asked to believe the very water is poisoned by the tiny serpents’ presence. Or maybe the asps have been replaced by electric eels.

Following Eros’s poorly staged suicide, Antony follows with an attempt at his own, but it, too, is bungled, both by the character and the director, inducing giggles from the audience. (I’m not sure what it was, but a bit of bloody matter fell from Antony’s shirt after he stabbed himself and remained on the floor for the rest of the play.) Later, after Antony lies dead, we’re reminded of the West Indies milieu by the Soothsayer (Mr. Michael) entering and doing some mumbo jumbo, after which Antony and Eros rise like zombies and walk off into the upstage wading pool. Other zombies follow later. And at the conclusion, after a funeral song and dance in their honor, the dead Antony and Cleopatra, now cleaned up and all in white, dance slowly in the wading pool.

I think, in fact, we should remember this two hour and 45 minute production as the “Zombie” ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA. It takes a living play and transforms it into one of the living dead.