Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety."
William Shakespeare wrote those words about Cleopatra, history's most famous queen. Now some admirers are applying them to Vanessa Redgrave, who plays her in a production of "Antony and Cleopatra" that has arrived in New York after attracting much attention at the Alley Theater in Houston as well as London and Brazil.
Redgrave is known for her outspoken politics as well as her extraordinary acting gifts, and while her vision of "Antony and Cleopatra" makes no direct comments on controversial issues of today, she uses her leverage as director of the production to scramble a few stereotypes and prompt a fresh look at age-old human conflicts.
One of her unusual tactics is to treat the play as if it took place in Shakespeare's time rather than the ancient Roman era. She uses the power struggles among ancient Romans and Egyptians to explore conflicts between Renaissance humanism, exemplified by the title characters, and conservative forces represented by Octavius Caesar, the Roman ruler. Unlike the Egyptian queen and her consort, Octavius is oblivious to the need for reaching beyond tradition and finding new, multicultural ways of thinking and living.
"Antony and Cleopatra" is also a love story, of course, even though the celebrated couple has only a few scenes together. In a twist on preconceived notions of the play, Redgrave reverses familiar ideas of how the main characters should look: Instead of showing a dark-skinned North African bombshell dallying with a white European man, she plays Cleopatra herself, opposite black actor David Harewood as the queen's Roman lover.
In terms of cultural politics, this can be seen as an implied contribution to recent debates on whether black theater professionals should integrate their activities with white institutions, or pursue their own agendas by separate means. Harewood and other black performers in "Antony and Cleopatra" clearly feel Shakespeare's characters are relevant to their own public goals and private interests - and that filling Elizabethan roles with diverse contemporary faces is a fine way of demonstrating racial harmony and equality.
In dramatic terms, this makes for first-rate theater, enriching the subtexts of the drama and providing some electrifying scenes as Harewood and Redgrave play off each other's theatrical strengths. They do this with skill and conviction, showing a firm grasp on Shakespeare's text and its meanings for contemporary audiences.
It's surprising to learn that a stage veteran like Redgrave has never directed a production before now, and it's gratifying to discover that she has exceptional abilities in this area. She paces the drama expertly, building from a mildly energetic beginning to an effectively poignant climax - when the queen kills herself after her hopes are ruined. And she spices the second act with video effects that might have seemed gimmicky but are used judiciously enough to become integral parts of the show. Bursts of well-chosen music enliven several scenes.
Along with Redgrave and Harewood, the main standout in the cast is Carrie Preston as the teenage Octavius Caesar; having a woman play this masculine role provides a gender switch that matches the reshuffling of racial clichs in other parts. Fanni Green and Jennifer Wiltsie give sturdy performances as the queen's servants. Don Campbell also makes a strong impression as a veteran of the Roman civil wars.
John Arnone designed the scenery, Ann Hould-Ward designed the costumes, and Rui Rita did the lighting. All help make this "Antony and Cleopatra" a visually stunning experience, under the guiding hand of an actress whose directing abilities are so strong that one hopes she exercises them regularly from now on.
* 'Antony and Cleopatra' continues at the Public Theater through March 30.