BWW Interview: Exclusive Scoop on The Public Theater's ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA with Charise Castro Smith
The Royal Shakespeare Company, Miami's Gablestage, and The Public Theater recently teamed up for a new production of Shakespeare's ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA. This unique company has been cast in both the U.S. and the U.K., and comprises five actors from each country to make up the cast of Shakespeare's historical play of love and politics. Director Tarell Alvin McCraney has decided to put a new spin on this classic play, and he has set it in the late 1700s against the backdrop of Saint-Domingue, on the eve of the Haitian Revolution against the French, bringing to light vivid historical parallels with the story of Antony and Cleopatra. This exciting new production has already had two successful runs in Stratford-upon-Avon and Miami, and will begin its final run in New York at The Public Theater on February 18.
BroadwayWorld recently had the opportunity to chat with Charise Castro Smith, who plays Octavia and Iras in this production, about this international collaboration, director Tarell Alvin McCraney, and more. Check out the full interview below!
You play Octavia and Iras. What can you tell me about your characters?
It's really cool what Tarell has done with this play. Usually Antony and Cleopatra has like forty different characters in it, and he has sort of trimmed the play down and edited it so that there are just ten actors playing all the roles. Octavius Caesar, Marc Antony, Cleopatra, and Enobarbus just play themselves, but the rest of us play all kinds of different characters. I lucked out because I get to be in both the Roman, and, in this production, French world as Octavia and I get to be in the Egyptian/Haitian world as Iras. It's a really cool pairing.
So how do your characters fit into the story?
Octavia is the sister of Octavius Caesar and she is married off in a political bid for peace to Marc Antony and - spoiler alert! - it does not work out! And as for Iras - Cleopatra has two women, like her right-hand women. Charmian is sort of her first lady and Iras is like her second in command. I get to do both of them and that's really cool.
I think one of the reasons that he did it was because, and I would never have known this before I started working on the play, but the relationship between Rome and Egypt was a colonial one. Egypt was essentially a colony of Rome, and in the same way that Haiti was a colony of France. In the play, Marc Antony and Egypt decide to fight Rome and Octavius Caesar in the same way that Haiti revolted against France. There are parallels between the two stories and I think people more readily have in their minds the history of Haiti becoming an independent country then they do about Egypt as a colony of Rome. I think that's one of the reasons that he did it, and I think it was really cool, especially doing the play in Miami because there is such a huge Haitian community there. I think people there were really able to cash in on the play in a way that was new and really alive and present.
Besides the change in setting, how else is this production of Antony and Cleopatra different from others before it?
There are a couple different things that I think helped his idea along. One of them was the movement. We were working with choreographer Gelan Lambert and he has really done a good job I think of separating these roles of France and Haiti through dance and the way people move in those worlds. Our composer, Michael Thurber, as well. I think the music instantly lets you know where you are. The music in France is very metered and courtly and the music in Haiti, some of it is traditional Haitian music and some of it is music that he composed after listening to a lot of Haitian music. The costumes too, I think, really tell the story because the Romans are in these very Napoleonic, French uniforms with the epaulets and stuff and the Haitians are in cotton and light fabric. There is sort of a colonial feeling to those worlds. So the design and the music and the movement are all things that he brought in I think to support the new concept.
You know, it's funny, Tarell and I went to the same public performing arts high school in Miami. He was like two years older than I was, so I knew him a little bit. He was kind of the cooler kid. So I knew him a little bit before we started this. He also graduated from Yale right as I was starting, so I knew him and sort of revered him as this amazingly cool guy since I was in my teens. Getting to work with him, he's so smart and so willing to listen in the room. It feels very, very collaborative, everything he does is very collaborative. I feel like people feel totally comfortable coming up with new stuff. Even now for the New York production we're still tweaking things and reworking some things, and some of it has been because of ideas we've had in the cast, and he's made room for that, which is really, really cool.
What would you say is the most exciting part about being in Antony and Cleopatra?
Personally, the fact that I got to do a play at the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) was just mind-blowingly awesome. I was born and raised in Miami, so to have that be the second stop of the tour was really cool because friends and family who have been hearing about me doing this theater thing for like ten years would have never gotten to see me do it got to come see the play, which was really awesome. Now, I'm ending up in New York which is sort of like my hometown now and at The Public which is amazing! It's been really cool to get to work in these three awesome places and my cast is so cool, I love my cast. This is an interesting play and one that I never read this play before I auditioned for it. It's a play that I think most people even, you know people still like Shakespeare, but you know, even I had never read or seen this play. It's been a really cool opportunity to work that I haven't seen. If I was doing Romeo and Juliet, I'd have a million other productions in my head but that's not the case with this play.
With Shakespeare, shows such as Antony and Cleopatra aren't always done. Everyone always knows and performs shows like Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet, so it's really cool when other productions are put out there.
Yeah, this play in particular is so interesting. It's so interesting looking at this play as part of Shakespeare's canon because it's so cinematic. There are scenes in the play that are like four lines long. It just moves so quickly and it's all over the place too. It's in Athens, it's in Rome, it's in Egypt, it just moves really fast.
You're working with The Royal Shakespeare Company, Miami's Gablestage, and The Public Theater on this production. What is it like to have this collaboration with three different companies at one time?
It's been really good, I think they've done a good job of all working together to have it be as seamless as possible for us. It's been three really different productions, well, two so far, since we're starting rehearsals back up tomorrow so I don't quite know what that's going to be like yet. The RSC and Gablestage cater to very different audiences, so it's been interesting to see what the reaction was in Stratford-upon-Avon versus Miami. Both of these companies have done a good job taking care of us and have been really welcoming and I'm sure the Public will be too.
You said earlier that when you were in Miami, since there is a big Haitian population there, the reception was really good. What about the reception in Stratford-upon-Avon, how was that?
It was different because of the audiences in Stratford. I think a lot of people who are audience members of the RSC have seen multiple productions of every Shakespeare play, and so they know these plays inside and out. I think for us to do this production that was cut and edited and set in a different place was a very different thing for the RSC, very different from how they are used to seeing Shakespeare plays. I think some people were really into it, and other people were sort of confused by it.
Have there been any changes in the show from venue to venue?
The sets were slightly different from Stratford to Miami and it's going to be slightly different at the Anspacher as well, so the staging is a little bit different. We did a lot of student shows in Miami, and so we did a slightly shorter version for those shows. Other than that, it hasn't changed very significantly. I think we're going to do some more music and movement stuff here in New York. It'll be interesting to see what happens with that.
Have you ever worked at The Public before?
I have not. I've done readings and stuff like that but this is the first production I'm getting to do and I am so psyched! I am waiting to see what it will be, but I am assuming it is going to be a good experience! We start rehearsals tomorrow.
Is there anything else about the show that you think people should know?
I think it's going to be really cool. The way I think about this show is that it's a rare opportunity for people who have seen a lot of theater to maybe be surprised by a Shakespeare play because this play is so uncommonly done. My husband is also an actor, and he came to see it at Stratford, and he said it was a cool experience to watch a Shakespeare play and not know the plot and not know what was going to happen next. I think that's really cool and I think audiences will be into that.
So what's next for you, do you have anything else coming up after this?
Yes. I'm also a playwright and I have a production of one of my plays called The Hunchback of Seville at Washington Ensemble Theater, so I'll be heading there for rehearsals in May. I just had a staged reading of another one of my plays, at the Goodman in December for their New Stages Festival, a play called Feathers and Teeth, so I've been working a little bit more with them and stuff and figuring out what will be the next step with that play. I keep myself very busy!
ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA will run through March 23 at The Public's Anspacher Theater. Single tickets can be purchased by calling (212) 967-7555, www.publictheater.org, or in person at the Taub Box Office at The Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Street.
Photo Credit: Hugo Glendinning