"Age can not wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety." Well, they got that right.
For the Yale Summer Cabaret's season-opening production of Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra," the walls of the underground dinner theater space are adorned with iconic Tom of Finland drawings of buff gay men.
The preshow music includes Chaka Khan's "I'm Every Woman," Book of Love's "Boy" and several pre-"Vogue" Madonna hits. There's an introductory bit where two of the performers — Arturo Soria (speaking many of his lines in Spanish) as Charmian and Jakeem Powell as Iras — emerge in fishnet stockings and short shorts, doing lengthy lip-synch routines in the spirit of '80s drag clubs. The pair continue to prance throughout the show as a sort of Greek chorus.
The cast is reduced from potentially dozens of people to a mere six, all male. This is not "all male" in the "that's how they did it in Shakespeare's day" sense. (The best example of that would be Mark Rylance Cleopatra at Shakespeare's Globe in London in 1999.) Director/adaptor/conceptualizer Rory Pelsue sees a connection between ancient civilizations and drag culture of the 1980s.
The characters dance as much as they fight or make love. They turn monologues such as "Give me my robe, put on my crown" and "O sovereign mistress of true melancholy" into sweet songs. They bleed glitter.
Antony, of Rome, is a hunky, short-haired warrior played by Hudson Oznowicz with a gee-shucks grin and an overabundance of bravado. He is entranced, as are we all, by Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt (the lithe, graceful and soft-spoken Erron Crawford). Ben Anderson plays both Antony's brother in arms Enobarbus and his betrothed Octavia (who invokes the jealousy of Cleopatra). Steven Lee Johnson portrays both a vaudeville-style soothsayer and Emperor Caesar himself.
The actors (especially Crawford, Oznowicz and Anderson) are able to shift from upbeat to sad easily, a necessary skill in a show that is trying to set up a frenzied, fun-loving backdrop for what is nonetheless a tragic tale of love and politics.
Pelsue's admittedly audacious adaptation has some built-in flaws — it's hard to establish leadership and majesty in such a democratic, non-status-based environment as a nightclub, and the interactions are less convincingly staged once the main players have to leave the dance floor. Riw Rakkulchon's set design goes for darkness and starkness rather than glamor.
The great advantage of this production is that it's short (100 intermissionless minutes, including the prefatory drag-queen routines) and concise. Shakespeare's script has a lot of wayward tangents, and Pelsue trims many of them.
It may seem like this version is taking extreme liberties, but in truth all Cleopatra stories — whether it's Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, the Elizabeth Taylor movie or silly comedies like "Carry On Cleo" — are playing with the concepts of opulence, extravagance and extraordinary passions. Sexy nightlife variations on Shakespeare aren't uncommon — I've seen "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "Comedy of Errors," "Measure for Measure" and others staged similarly, and successfully. This one speaks the bard's words respectfully, and honors the spirit of unbridled love with flash, flair and fabulousness.
ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA by William Shakespeare, adapted and directed by Rory Pelsue, runs through June 11 at Yale Summer Cabaret, 217 Park St., New Haven. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 8 p.m. and Thursday and Friday at 7 and 10 p.m. Tickets are $30, $15 students. 203-432-1567, summercabaret17.org.