Last time we saw the impressive Joaquina Kalukango on stage, she was a smart but mostly powerless kid trying to survive the Memphis projects. The play was Katori Hall’s Hurt Village, and the actress was playing Cookie, a 13-year-old wanna-be rapper in a community ravaged by drugs, poverty and violence. Well, the child has grown up and acquired some clout. Now Kalukango is playing none other than Cleopatra, beauteous, imperious, Mark Antony-bewitching queen of Egypt. Sorry, make that Haiti. If you’re main reference point for William Shakespeare’s lesser-seen Roman drama is Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, think again.
The program for the Public Theater’s new production of Antony and Cleopatra tells us that it was “edited and directed” by Tarell Alvin McCraney. That credit sounds more radical than it actually is; the rocketing young African American playwright behind The Brother/Sister Plays and Choir Boy has indeed rearranged scenes from the original and turned soldier Enobarbus (Chukwudi Iwuji) into a coolly sardonic narrator, but directors have been tinkering with Shakespeare for centuries. (We’ve had so many recent attempts at King Lear, I’m desperate for someone to revive the bowdlerized Nahum Tate rewrite, which slaps a happy ending on the tragedy.) This version, coproduced by the Royal Shakespeare Company and performed by a mixture of English and American actors, takes liberties, but – like its fiery, 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 (British trouper Jonathan Cake at his most lusty and cocky) is a French colonialist who falls for the fascinating Cleopatra. She in turn uses exotic sexual allure to keep him fascinated and to maintain her bargaining position with the less pliant Octavius Caesar (Samuel Collings, excellently repressed and superior). The casting and historical window dressing give Mark Antony and Cleopatra’s romance and subsequent tensions a racial edge, one that is not altogether absent in the Shakespeare – there are passing references to the regal lady’s “tawny front” and “gypsy’s lust.”
Even though the historical Cleopatra died at age 39, here or in London the role tends to go to older divas. Laila Robins took Cleo on in 2008, and Vanessa Redgave was 60 when she did it at the Public. Casting the youthful, petite Kalukango emphasizes Cleopatra’s vulnerability 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.) She is undeniably ripe and sexy, and her scenes with frequently shirtless and virile Cake crackle with sensuality, but the idea loses steam. Even if some production ideas falter (a voodoo-resurrected Enobarbus is merely distracting), the pacing is swift and the language (previous quibbles aside) handled quite well. It’s a good cast, with the English performers getting highest marks for force and clarity, but they’re all on the same page. McCraney may be a decent editor, but I’m more impressed by his staging chops.
David Cote is theater editor and chief drama critic of Time Out New York. He is also a contributing critic on NY1’s On Stage.