Erron Crawford as Cleopatra in Yale Summer Cabaret’s Antony + Cleopatra

Summer Lovin‘

Cleopatra—the glamorous, irresistible queen at the heart of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra—famously “makes hungry / Where most she satisfies,” and the same can be said about Yale Summer Cabaret’s effervescent and erotic production, Antony + Cleopatra, which cuts the four-hour play down to a lean 90 minutes and leaves you begging for more.

The scene and passions are familiar—Alexandria, Egypt, and a poisonous, self-cannibalizing desire between the country’s seductive queen and Roman golden boy Mark Antony, who literally wears gilded hot pants in this production. The cast is all-male, as it would have been in Shakespeare’s time, but rather than adhering to a dominant cultural norm, adapter and director Rory Pelsue is embracing a counterculture—drag—with open, shimmying arms.

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We begin with two drag queens, a sultry Jakeen Powell as Iras and a bombastic, bilingual Arturo Soria as Charmain. Ladies in waiting to the yet-unseen queen Cleopatra, the two dance and lip-sync throughout the small space, resplendent in blue sparkles, harnesses, pigtails, fishnet body stockings and platform heels. They warn the audience that “we don’t play in Alexandria,” but nothing could be further from the truth, and they know it. The show that unfolds is bursting at the seams with innuendo, sex, pounding club music and clouds of glitter.

Despite its subversive staging, this production is faithful to the original’s text and moods. While many contemporary Shakespearean productions seem to wear their modernity heavily—bending over backwards trying to bring the Bard into the 21st century—Pelsue’s production doesn’t feel at pains to make the play modern. Instead, the show taps into the source material’s maximalist strain. After all, there’s never been “a pair so famous”—or so dramatic—as Antony and Cleopatra.

The cast is an astonishment. Cleopatra is deftly realized by Erron Crawford (pictured above), who commits himself to the mercurial moods of the queen wholeheartedly, luxuriating in her wicked brand of drama while leaving the tragedy of her tender pride and excessive love just visible under the surface. Hudson Oznowicz’s Antony is a blond demigod, a war machine broken down by lust and left manic in the wake of Cleopatra’s influence.

Ben Anderson plays the conflicted Enobarbus, Antony’s right-hand man, with disarming earnestness, and then, wrapped in a chaste, gauzy headdress and it-girl sunglasses, gives a hilarious turn as Octavia, Antony’s peckish bride, flitting and fluttering around like a sparrow on quaaludes. Steven Lee Johnson’s Caesar is a clean-cut power-player, unflappable in tennis whites, with the corporate smile of a man who owns the world. Everyone gave it their all, and the sheer energy of it was a little miraculous.

The six-person cast feels cramped in the basement space, and most of the drama happens through the crowd, catwalk-style. This setup allows light designer Krista Smith to flex her considerable muscles, but nevertheless, the cast would benefit from some breathing room. A few moments played for laughs would be better left alone, and the optional dinner before the show—we ordered the “Antony,”, a.k.a. barbecue chicken with sweet potato fries—felt underwhelming and, for $16, overpriced, but these quibbles don’t detract from the success of the show.

The breathless runtime means the gnarled political storyline takes a backseat to the personal passions on display. Antony + Cleopatra is a story about lust, and the chemistry between the leads is hypnotic. No less affecting are the threads of love connecting the larger cast. Cleopatra’s ladies are cattily dedicated to their queen, and Eros’s last act of loyalty to Antony has the dignity of high romance.

For all the kitsch and frivolity in Summer Cabaret’s version, which runs through June 11, the play’s shattering finale is deeply sincere. Just because moments of crisis are punctuated by handfuls of red glitter doesn’t mean they’re not heartbreaking.

Antony + Cleopatra
Yale Summer Cabaret – 217 Park Street, New Haven (map)
Now playing through June 11
(203) 432-1566 |

Written by Sorrel Westbrook. Photo, depicting Erron Crawford as Cleopatra, by Elizabeth Green for Yale Summer Cabaret.

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