Tarell Alvin McCraney’s got the gift. That might be all you need to know – the brother’s got the gift. Having this knowledge would free up about five minutes of your precious time, allowing you to go online to buy a few tickets for Antony and Cleopatra, McCraney’s latest offering now running at the Colony Theater on Lincoln Road until Feb. 9, when it moves to New York where it will knock them dead and make you regret it if you have not yet indeed purchased tickets.
I remember having had my jaw drop during The Brothers Size – vocalized stage directions barked by the actor under the car, then out from the car, I was among those laughing and hurting as McCraney spun his story of a Bayou family trying to figure it all out. There, Teo Castellanos sang hauntingly and suggestively, “Come on and go with me; come on over to my place” as a chill filled the GableStage at the Biltmore. Sweetly soulful dialogue, mournful characters first joking before coping, and always anxiously uneasy like a Sunday morning.
McCraney moves his audience deliberately, at times delivering its goods in a fully post-contemporary manner, and then something classically gets offered, along with pinches of religion, magic, charm and sledgehammer. He lifts you up, then twirls you about like an intellectual David Blaine. Unless you are purely stuffy, traditional and emblematic, you leave the venue shaking your head, asking how he had thought of that.
This time, McCraney has tackled Shakespeare via a detour to Haiti’s massive slave revolt as, of course, the empire needs to strike back. When you are young, not wealthy, of ethnicity and more, the reality of the hierarchy and how it is stacked against some may be understood intrinsically. Others know it then forget it. McCraney not only gets this condition, but he can always painstakingly imagine it, shape it, cast it, write it, reshape it to Shakespeare and reveal it.
He does not forget where he comes from. The play is a labor of love between Miami’s own GableStage, the Royal Shakespeare Company straight outta London, and The Public Theater from the Big Apple, which began as Joe Papp’s Shakespeare Workshop about a half century ago, and which operates Shakespeare in the Park. Recent productions there have featured Al Pacino and Anne Hathaway, so McCraney has earned some good relationships in high places.
It’s Shakespeare, so here’s some plot: A powerful man and a powerful woman truly madly and deeply fall in love. Think Romeo and Juliet, but grown. On the other hand, Antony falls for Cleopatra though he is married, then he becomes widowed and agrees to remarry a rival to avoid Civil War – politics makes strange bedfellows right? Now flip the setting from Rome and Egypt to France and Haiti, make him French and her the defender of the sultry, enslaved Empire, add some music and dance, and then sit back, relax, and get comfortable – running time is more than two-and-a-half hours. Of course, McCraney’s got this covered; his work is always funny, profound, suggestive, upsetting and affecting. That’s how he does things, and why he is considered by more than a few to be a young genius.
This is not to say that McCraney has gotten a free pass from the press. Charles Spencer skewered Antony and Cleopatra’s London run in Great Britain’s Telegraph, calling some dialogue “crass” and claiming (hilariously) that none of the performances were any good. Andrew Dickson of the guardian was slightly more complimentary, complaining about its “swapping one set of clichés for another,” while also recognizing how “exciting” it is to see the Royal Shakespeare Company open up a bit.
Having seen McCraney’s work and having read these critics’ columns, I would suggest sending them on a little holiday in Miami and educating them a bit about some 21st century sensibilities which we hold dear here. Maybe Antony quoting Cypress Hill, “This is something you can’t understand… I could just kill a man.” Then, those who don’t approve, too, will come to appreciate the gift we have in Tarell Alvin McCraney.
Carl Rachelson is a teacher at Palmer Trinity School and a regular contributor to the Pinecrest Tribune. He may be contacted by addressing email to <crachelson@palmertrinity. org>.