‘Antony and Cleopatra’ gets a visceral Haitian makeover

The tumultuous drama, a play that could represent a step forward for 21st century South Florida theater, was written early in the 17th century. But there is nothing old-fashioned or dated about William Shakespeare’s challenging, episodic Antony and Cleopatra.

Lust, politics, passion, war, betrayal and suicide all factor into a play that defies categorization, mixing tragedy, history and romance with just a touch of comedy.

In Tarell Alvin McCraney’s new version of Antony and Cleopatra, that rich theatrical mosaic acquires visceral threads of race and conquest thanks to the playwright-director’s decision to experiment, however subtly, with time and place. Though the text still has Mark Antony as one of three Roman rulers and Cleopatra as the queen of Egypt, McCraney imagines the action taking place in colonial Saint-Domingue and Napoleonic France on the eve of the 1791-1804 Haitian revolution.

Antony and Cleopatra, which will have a high-profile, high-stakes opening at 7 p.m. Thursday at Miami Beach’s Colony Theater, is the collaborative effort of three theater companies: GableStage in Coral Gables, Great Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company and New York’s Public Theater. McCraney, the 33-year-old Miamian who was named one of 24 recipients of a MacArthur “genius grant” fellowship in September, has had his work produced at each of the theaters and was the persuasive force behind the $2.1 million production.

For GableStage artistic director Joseph Adler, helping to bring McCraney’s Antony and Cleopatra to fruition has been a daunting task. His company’s $700,000 share of the production costs has meant more than doubling the theater’s budget for the season; typically, a GableStage show costs $70,000 to $100,000. A Knight Arts Challenge grant, support from the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs, plus other grants and donations have been key to the theater being an equal partner with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Public, which have vastly larger staffs, budgets and long histories of producing Shakespeare’s works.

Yet Adler felt he had to say yes to McCraney’s idea.

“It would be impossible to pass up the opportunity to collaborate with Tarell, the [Royal Shakespeare Company] and the Public. It wasn’t a tough decision to make. It was tough to implement,” Adler says.

The “radical edit” of Antony and Cleopatra began at the behest of Michael Boyd, former artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, who asked McCraney for a “bold new take on this difficult play” when he was a playwright in residence with the company. The play ran there in November, and critical reaction ranged from enthusiastic and appreciative to one particularly dismissive review. After its month at the Colony, it will play the Public Feb. 18-March 23.

“This play is a history and a tragedy, one of Shakespeare’s true hybrids,” McCraney says by phone during a break between the British debut and the start of the Miami Beach run. “It weaves narrative into a dramatic tragedy. Audiences had a different sense of that history when the play was first being performed, so I thought, ‘Where can we set this historically so that people can understand it?’ ”

Placing the play just before the Haitian revolution provided McCraney with the rich, more recent context he was seeking.

“That was a period where colonization was being birthed and codified. It offered the idea of race and its naissance. So the audience could feel a visceral response to the history,” he says. “People will see the intimacy, power and race dynamics of that era.”

Yet audiences who go to Antony and Cleopatra during its month-long Miami Beach run — adult theatergoers on weekends, thousands of Miami-Dade students during the week — shouldn’t expect a vastly altered play. The Haitian/French elements are suggested by choreographer Gelan Lambert’s movement, composer Michael Thurber’s music and Creole lyrics, and designer Tom Piper’s costumes. Lambert’s work contributes in a major way to giving the new Antony and Cleopatra its cultural overlay.

“The Haitian world is a hodgepodge of Africans brought over in the middle passage slave trade. That African culture is rich — people don’t forget the drums and the music,” says the choreographer, a New World School of the Arts graduate. “I respect the culture. I approached it as an extrapolation of the African diaspora.”

Yet as with McCraney’s slimmed-down Hamlet, done first for the Royal Shakespeare Company and produced at GableStage in early 2012, the words in Antony and Cleopatra are Shakespeare’s. Some speeches have been moved, other scenes trimmed or cut so that a normally lengthy play now runs an action-packed couple of hours with one intermission.

The cast, which usually numbers three dozen or so, features just 10 actors, some playing multiple roles. A mixture of American and British actors, the company features Jonathan Cake, a U.S.-based British stage, television and film veteran, as Mark Antony opposite the 24-year-old, Juilliard-trained Joaquina Kalukango as Cleopatra.

Those focal roles are often cast with older actors, but that isn’t what McCraney wanted: “These are two people old enough to understand love but also not so old that it’s routine. The fire still burns.”

As Chukwudi Iwuji, the actor who plays Antony’s follower Enobarbus, puts it, “It’s very sexy to have an Antony and Cleopatra you’d actually want to sleep with.”

“I had never seen Cleopatra portrayed as a black queen,” says Kalukango who, like her cast mates, made a six-month commitment to the project between rehearsals and performances. “I watched a lot of documentaries and read the 2012 biography of her. But then you let that go. In the rehearsal room, you … say, ‘Here’s the play. How do we bring it to life?’ ”

Cake wasn’t terribly familiar with Antony and Cleopatra but felt he’d dug up buried treasure once he read it. He calls his role and the play “a joy, but hard as hell, the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” And at 46, the actor feels an innate understanding of the lover, warrior and political operative he’s playing.

“I’m the same age and have some of the same issues as Antony. My body is giving out on me, as Antony’s is on him. I have as much of my life behind me as ahead of me. He’s suffering from that restless male egocentric thing, a classic midlife crisis,” Cake says. “All of that seemed extremely interesting to me. These plays have a strange habit of finding you when you need them and you’re open to them.”

Iwuji, a New York-based British actor, plays Enobarbus and, in McCraney’s version, serves as the play’s narrator.

“This is one of my favorite plays. I read Tarell’s version and thought, ‘Oh my God, you’ve taken away two hours and made the story ridiculously clear.’ I was very impressed,” he says, adding that he believes that McCraney’s take on the play proves illuminating.

“Shakespeare wrote for humanity, and his plays can take anything. He wrote for the times, whatever those times are,” Iwuji says. “People don’t think of ancient Rome as colonial, so it’s a brilliant coup to bring it forward to France. I like that Tarell doesn’t call it France and Haiti but gives us a visual so we know what it means for Antony to be sleeping with Cleopatra. … Marrying a visual image with the language is like a time machine, so we can see how history repeats itself.”

Charise Castro Smith is a former Miamian who, like McCraney, went to high school at New World School of the Arts and earned a master’s degree at the Yale School of Drama. Making her hometown professional debut in Antony and Cleopatra, she plays Octavia, sister of Octavius Caesar and the woman
Antony marries in order to cement a political alliance.

Smith, who is also a playwright, thinks what McCraney has done to the play is transformative.

“The full play is an experimental Shakespeare play, big and unwieldy. Tarell has made it kind of cinematic, with short scenes. It moves quickly, seamlessly. It’s exciting,” she says.

For McCraney, who grew up in Liberty City and began finding his identity as a theater artist in his hometown, making sure that Miami was part of the Antony and Cleopatra journey was critical.

“It was really important to me that the piece come to Miami, because of my love for Joe and for Miami,” he says. “I’ve been pushing myself to the limit to do this. I knew working with the three companies would be big. But if I can get through March, life will be great. Now I understand better the hard job it is to create a Shakespeare festival in Miami. Whatever the outcome, I’m happy to know we gave it our best shot.”