Antony and Cleopatra

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Photograph: Joan Marcus
Antony and Cleopatra
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Photograph: Joan Marcus
Antony and Cleopatra
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Photograph: Joan Marcus
Antony and Cleopatra
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Photograph: Joan Marcus
Antony and Cleopatra
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Photograph: Joan Marcus
Antony and Cleopatra
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Photograph: Joan Marcus
Antony and Cleopatra
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Photograph: Joan Marcus
Antony and Cleopatra
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Photograph: Joan Marcus
Antony and Cleopatra
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Photograph: Joan Marcus
Antony and Cleopatra

Antony and Cleopatra. Public Theater (see Off Broadway). By William Shakespeare. Edited and directed by Tarell Alvin McCraney. With Jonathan Cake, Joaquina Kalukango. Running time: 2hrs 45mins. One intermission.

Antony and Cleopatra: In brief

Tarell Alvin McCraney (The Brother/Sister Plays), fast-rising playwright and 2013 MacArthur Foundation "genius" grantee, directs his own spin on Shakespeare's intercultural romantic tragedy, with a multiracial cast drawn from both sides of the Atlantic. Jonathan Cake (superb in last year's Much Ado About Nothing) and Joaquina Kalukango (a knockout in Hurt Village) play the title roles.

Antony and Cleopatra: Theater review by David Cote

The program for the Public Theater’s new Antony and Cleopatra tells us that it was “edited and directed” by Tarell Alvin McCraney. That credit sounds more revisionist than it actually is; the rocketing young playwright behind The Brother/Sister Plays and Choir Boy has rearranged scenes in the original and turned soldier Enobarbus (Chukwudi Iwuji) into a narrator, but directors have been tinkering with Shakespeare for centuries. This version, coproduced by the Royal Shakespeare Company and performed by English and American actors, takes liberties, but—like its passion-driven, doomed queen—remains strikingly faithful.

More interesting is McCraney’s choice of period. He moves the action from 1st-century B.C. Rome and Egypt to 18th-century France and Haiti, around the time of Toussaint-Louverture’s slave revolt. In this reading, Mark Antony (Cake at his most lusty and cocky) is a French colonialist who falls for the bewitching Cleopatra (Kalukango). She uses her sexual allure to keep him fascinated and to maintain her bargaining position with the less pliant Octavius Caesar (Samuel Collings).

Even though the historical Cleopatra died at age 39, in England and America the role tends to go to more seasoned performers. Laila Robins took it on in 2008 and Vanessa Redgave was 60 when she did it at the Public. Casting the youthful, petite Kalukango emphasizes Cleopatra’s vulnerabilty and impetuousness. The downside is that the actor, although sensual and thrilling, doesn’t pull off the tragic histrionics of the final scenes. (She’s also stuck with a musical but muddling Caribbean accent.) Even if some ideas falter (a voodoo-resurrected Enobarbus is merely distracting), the pacing is swift and the language handled quite well. McCraney may be a fine editor, but I’m more impressed by his staging chops.—Theater review by David Cote

THE BOTTOM LINE: Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy takes a splashy vacation in the Caribbean.

Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote

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