At the Yale Cabaret’s tiny basement theater on Park Street, something mystical was unfolding. A scarved, glitter-clad and turbaned soothsayer worked their hands around a glowing glass globe, looking into the future. In wide fishnets, shiny booty shorts and a pink tank top, Charmian begged for her fortune.
“Good now, some excellent fortune! Let me be married / to three kings in a forenoon, and widow them all: / let me have a child at fifty, to whom Herod of Jewry / may do homage: find me to marry me with Octavius / Caesar, and companion me with my mistress,” she cackled.
“You shall outlive the lady whom you serve,” said the soothsayer in a singsong, wispy voice.
“O excellent! I love long life better than fags,” she said. “Figs! I mean figs.” The audience dissolved into laughter
Charmian twirled a pigtail and pulled a cherry lollipop in and out of her mouth. It was drag show. Except it was also Shakespeare. And Mark Antony was about to get screwed, just not in the way he’d envisioned.
Such is the bridging of worlds in Antony & Cleopatra, on at the Yale Summer Cabaret this Wednesday through Sunday (the play had its first run last weekend; ticket information here). Adapted and directed by Rory Pelsue, it is the first in a summer season of four plays that seek to revisit, rewrite, and bend theatrical history.
One of Shakespeare’s history plays, Antony & Cleopatra tells the story of Mark Antony’s demise at the hands of Octavius Caesar, who conquers him at sea to avenge his wronged sister Octavia (Ben Anderson), and sate his ever-expanding hunger — for more land, more women, more things. Tasked with taming Caesar, Antony is too enraptured by Cleopatra to do things like build consensus and make practical military decisions. We meet him as he falls for her, and proceeds to ride her with abandon. It ultimately costs him both his and his lover’s life.
In the adaptation — which retains about 90 percent of the original text — Pelsue employs drag to great narrative effect, seizing on an interest in sex and gender (Romans = macho, down to business, straight! Alexandrians = flashy, dramatic, flamboyant!) that’s in the original text. Cleopatra (Erron Crawford) and her ladies Charmian (Arturo Soria) and Iras (Jakeem Powell) are all played by queens, as are some of Antony’s (Hudson Oznowicz) attendants and wife Octavia (Ben Anderson). Caesar (Stephen Lee Johnson) is by contrast a bro dressed from head to foot in white tennis attire.
Shakespearian? Maybe not in the traditional sense (although the actors in Shakespeare’s time would have all been played by men). But with a deep understanding of drag and the history behind it, the adaptation breathes new life into the verse, coming up with enough touches to make it its own.
That begins with the company’s ear for Shakespeare, and particularly the way Shakespeare writes his Alexandrian characters. From the play’s outset, these characters use elevated, hyped-up language, sometimes parroting each other’s sentences, or leaving glittery trails of words wherever they’ve been. That style of speech isn’t present anywhere else in the play (for instance, in the way Romans talk), or Shakespeare’s other histories.
But it does sound like something much more recent — drag queens, circa 1990. Think Paris is Burning. When Charmian and Iras exchange witty, cutting banter with a soothsayer near the beginning of the play, they invoke a language not unlike that in drag balls, phrases like “yass” and the practices of voguing, throwing shade, and reading for filth. And they’re just getting started.
Pelsue — who also handled drag and its history beautifully in And Tell Sad Stories of The Deaths of Queens — runs with this framework, as do actors Soria and Powell. The two embody their drag selves so deeply that it’s disconcerting when Soria transitions, still in his drag clothes, into Agrippa, an angry old biddie with a muddled Brooklyn accent. Or when he jumps back into the role of Charmian, speaking rapid, oozy Spanish punctuated by outbursts of puta and mi reina.
Crawford does some amazing gender-bending scenes with wig removal and replacement, and commits fully to Cleopatra’s hysterics and profound wants through her bitter end. Where Charmian and Iras prime the audience by welcoming them to “Alexandria” and perform classic drag ballads in English and Spanish, Cleopatra opts for Brandi, singing over “Sittin Up in My Room” as she climbs on top of a table, holds an afro pick to her lips, and pines for Mark Antony.
And “straight” actors commit too, working through what it means to perform masculinity, and what it means to break. At one point near the end of the show, Antony’s servant Enobarbus (Ben Anderson) spins his lines into song, filling the theater with haunting music. Antony transforms into the human equivalent of a heaving chest, so aware of his lust and so powerless against it.
Lighting Designer Krista Smith has turned the Cab into a drag wonderland, where ribbons of neon light flash across the ceiling, signifying transitions and changes in scenery and mood. Windowsills are adorned with glass ornaments that flicker and gleam when the light skims their surfaces. Drag posters are pasted to the wall in clumps, as if the theater is in fact the bathroom of a club somewhere. Sound designer Michael Costagliola mixes house music, iconic drag ballads, and heavy, rhythmic beats for moments that yank the audience somewhere between 1607, 1990, and 2017. Choreographer Michael Breslin has incorporated voguing, step, and runway walking.
Maybe this all sounds funny, or out of place. But it fits the play, which asks what it means to be violently masculine, and driven by one form of conquest or another. It offers up multiple femininities, catty and ravenous and sharp-edged, with characters trying to figure out what they are, and who they ultimately serve. Like most Shakespeare, it is not without penis jokes: Whose sword is penetrating whom, who is running from what sharp object, who seeks out ‘the worm’ near the close of the play, and invites it to stick its fangs into their soft, waiting skin.
Here, drag isn’t so subversive after all. Instead, it’s the thing that strips the capital H from History, and helps us identify with these characters. Yes, Antony and Cleopatra are spectacular figures. It’s why they’re memorialized by Shakespeare, by neoclassical painters, by poets and novelists. But they’re also just people. People who are too damn horny to deal with the world around them. People who have fallen so hard in love that they’re not thinking about best practices. People who love, and screw, and make terrible decisions, and lose everything — and would probably do the same thing again. People who make us cry because we see something of ourselves in them.
With Pelsue at the helm, there’s a great sense of invention in Antony & Cleopatra, a celebration of drag’s eon-spanning, stereotype-breaking properties and its fittingness to Shakespeare’s swooning language. Maybe we’ve all seen Romeo and Juliet adaptations where the characters pull out iPhones and struggle with the words. This is the opposite. It’s current but not clumsy, subversive only in its faith to the original. This makes the questions the characters ask in Antony & Cleopatra as timeless as ever. Who am I supposed to be? How am I supposed to perform my role? How will people talk about me in 400 years?