Shakespeare’s rarely produced love-tinged tragedy Antony and Cleopatra arrives at Off Broadway’s Public Theater after a ”radical edit”?so says the script?by talented young playwright-turned-director Tarell Alvin McCraney (The Brother Sister Plays).
McCraney’s concept?bringing the story into revolutionary Haiti, circa 1800?isn’t as jarring as you might imagine. Just think of Cleopatra (Joaquina Kalukango) as a Caribbean queen rather than the Egyptian monarch, and envision Caesar (Samuel Collings) as Napoleon. He’s short, he rests his hand regally on his sternum?it works. His ”radical edit” involves some judicious scene-swapping, and the elevation of Enobarbus (Chukwudi Iwuji)?devoted friend and confidante of Marc Antony (Jonathan Cake)?from sideline reporter to narrator, stage manager, and, in the play’s final fatal scene, Voodoo spirit, guiding souls into the afterlife.
This sort of Enobarbus Presents Antony and Cleopatra approach ultimately works because Iwuji is so compelling. Just listen to his description of Cleopatra?”other women cloy/The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry/Where most she satisfies.” He makes her sound magical.
But I’ll admit to being less than charmed by Kalukango, a dynamite actress who stunned in Katori Hall’s Hurt Village in 2012 and seems completely miscast here. When Antony needs to leave to take care of some war-related stuff?his wife is dead, Caesar is ticked off?she reacts less like a rejected lover than a petulant child whose toy has been snatched away. And a Marc-Antony-as-boy-toy tack would certainly be intriguing?Cake spends enough time draped in a sheet?if she and Cake had even a little spark between them. Frankly, Cake and Iwuji have more chemistry — in a strictly bromantic sense, of course.
Without a sizzling central couple, this Antony and Cleopatra (previously staged in London and Miami) just sort of lurches along from Egypt to Rome?or from Haiti to France?and from spats and semi-truces to stabbings and suicides. Even the use of live music, song, and dance can’t inject much life into the sluggish proceedings. Just because everyone winds up dead in the end doesn’t mean the evening needs to be so deadly dull. C