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Antony and Cleopatra plays at Studio 201

Romeo and Juliet may be his most famous, but Shakespeare’s ultimate tragic pair of star-crossed lovers are Antony and Cleopatra. Last weekend the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama staged a gripping re-imagining of the ancient tale of the powerful Roman general and enchanting Egyptian queen’s doomed love affair and placed it firmly within the racial tensions of present-day America.

Adapted and directed by John Wells Directing Fellow Eleanor Bishop and senior acting major Chante Adams, who also portrayed Cleopatra, Antony and Cleopatra blended Shakespeare’s Elizabethan text with the words of black performers, thinkers, and activists to present a piece that dialogued with mixed issues of race and feminism.

Featuring a strong ensemble cast that included junior musical theatre major Joseph Essig as Antony and junior musical theatre major Henry Ayres-Brown as Antony’s rival for the emperor’s throne, Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra showcased the unique strengths of the school’s Studio 201 space on North Braddock avenue in Point Breeze and left audiences with plenty to ponder on the drive home.

Bishop and Adams’s adaptation did much to reorient the focus of the piece on Cleopatra herself, diluting Antony’s significance to a reference point for the piece’s commentary on interracial relationships. Cleopatra’s identity is established as exotic and “other” as the Egypt she rules when compared to the strict, white-bread world of Antony’s native Rome.

Antony’s brief, politically motivated marriage to Caesar’s sister Octavia, played by senior acting major Cara Ronzetti, is mashed up with commentary from rapper Azealia Banks on white appropriation of hip-hop music and culture as well as the July Twitter exchange between Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift over the former’s claim that the Video Music Awards nominations favored white female performers over black ones.

Cleopatra’s slight becomes the slight of all black performers constantly suppressed by a culture that values their contribution but prefers they stay out of sight in favor of the “girl next door.”

Another stirring combination came at the piece’s climax, with Cleopatra’s capture by Caesar playing out amidst a live performance of the audio taken from the violent arrest of Sandra Bland in July of last year over a moving violation. Bland was later found dead of apparent suicide in her jail cell, and Cleopatra’s suicide becomes the defiant stand of a culture decrying death before submission.

Compared to the grand proscenium of the Chosky Theater in Purnell, the Studio 201 space is immediate, and its bare-bones warehouse aesthetic gives the piece a gritty feel. The set is themed to give the impression the piece is a filming set for “Caesar productions,” and the action of the show was frequently interrupted by cries of “cut” or camera changes.

Monitors flanking the stage depicted the star-making view of the camera, which at times depicted Cleopatra and Antony as camera-hungry lovers à la Jay-Z and Beyoncé, and other times recast Octavia’s betrothal to Antony as a sexually-charged Taylor Swift music video. The production made smart use of multimedia to add extra layers to the fabric of the piece, leaving no stone unturned in the presentation of its discussion.

The cast was small, eight players in all, so each had to pull extra weight in playing multiple roles. Senior acting major Wesley Jones gave exuberant life to everyone from a Kanye West-inspired Pompey to Cleopatra’s servant Alexas and junior musical theatre major Arica Jackson inhabited Cleopatra’s servant Charmian as well as multiple voices on a Eugene Lang college panel, “Are You Still a Slave? Liberating the Black Female Body,” among others. It was ensemble acting at its finest.

Amidst headlines pronouncing massive protests in the wake of Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance of “Formation” and the racial themes of its music video, the School of Drama’s adaptation of Antony and Cleopatra touched on discussions that are seeing mainstream sunlight.

Adams concluded the piece with a painfully honest confession delivered directly to the audience, in which she revealed a childhood wish that she was a skinny white girl named Michelle. She faced the audience and admitted, to a mostly white audience, that she was taught to love them, but had to learn to love herself.

Antony and Cleopatra succeeded in its multi-textual approach to constructing a dynamic discussion on themes of race and feminism in modern America, and fits nicely in the School’s great season thus far.