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Charise Castro Smith: Antony and Cleopatra
by Beth Herstein


Charise Castro Smith and Jonathan Cake in
Antony and Cleopatra

Photo by Hugo Glendinning
Tarell Alvin McCraney, best known for The Brother/Sister Plays, is an exciting and innovative young playwright who's picked up numerous play writing awards along the way, including a 2013 MacArthur ("Genius") Award and a 2013 Windham Campbell Prize from Yale University. In addition to original work, McCraney has adapted some revered classics so that they are accessible to more people; for example, in collaboration with England's Royal Shakespeare Company, he edited and directed Hamlet for younger audiences for GableStage in his hometown of Miami. Now, he's presenting one of his dream projects, his edited version of Antony and Cleopatra. This production, which streamlines the 1602 work and sets it in Haiti on the eve of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), is a collaboration between New York's Public Theater, GableStage, and the Royal Shakespeare Company. The work, with Jonathan Cake and Joaquin Kalukango in the leads, has already been performed to great acclaim in Stratford and in Miami. This month, it makes its New York debut at the Public Theater.

I recently interviewed Charise Castro Smith, who plays Antony's wife Octavia, about the production. Smith, an up-and-coming playwright herself, talked about this new version of Antony and Cleopatra, performing the play in three different cities, working with Tarell Alvin McCraney and the tight-knit ensemble, and her own creative process as an actor and a playwright.

BH:  This is a collaboration of three theater companies, and this is the third stop on your tour. How has the show evolved?

CCS:  It has and it hasn't. It's the same production obviously. The set was a little different in Stratford than it was in Miami. The biggest thing, though, that was immediately different was the audience ... and what they came in with. Either they know about Shakespeare or know about the Haitian Revolution, or they are less informed. During Stratford, people have seen every Shakespeare play so many times. There, it felt like we were doing something much more radical [by switching the locale].

In Miami, there aren't a ton of Shakespeare productions [so it was a fresher experience for the audience]. We also did around 16 shows for public school students in Miami, and those were all free. Those performances were totally different because we were doing Shakespeare for kids, and for most of them it was their first time seeing one of Shakespeare's plays, and their first time encountering this play in particular, as it's been produced less frequently than other plays.

BH:  What have the productions been like for you personally?

CCS:  Working in Stratford, for me, was a dream come true. Getting to be on that stage, at the Swan Theatre, working with all the people there, was just amazing. I was born and raised in Miami, so for me doing the show there was a homecoming. Teachers, friends, all these people I grew up with—people who'd never gotten to see me perform, because I moved to New York right after college—got to come see this play. That was really cool for me. Now, to be in New York, adjusting to a third space, it will be a whole other experience. I'm interested to see what it will be like. Also, I've always wanted to work at the Public and this is such a cool opportunity.

BH:  You've been in the ensemble throughout its productions. Is that true of most of the cast?

CCS:  Yes. Everyone has been there since day one. We've been together since September 21 working on it.

BH:  I interviewed one of the actors, Henry Stram, several years ago. He is such a kind man.

CCS:  He's great. He really is like the sweetest person, so gentle and positive. He's been a wonderful presence in the room.

BH:  How about the rest of the ensemble?

CCS:  This whole ensemble is really strong. We've had a lot of fun doing this play together. Which is important, because the play itself is a tragedy. (laughter).

Half of our ensemble is American, and the other half is British. That's also been wonderful. When we were in London, the Brits showed us around their hometown. Now, I'm excited to show them New York.

Joaquina Kalukango, who is playing Cleopatra, is I think phenomenal. And, she's so young [she is 24 and a recent Juilliard graduate]! I admire her immensely. Everyone in our company is great. We've been together for a while now, and I feel really lucky to be with this group of people.

BH:  Without changing the the textual references to Egypt and Rome, Tarell Alvin McCraney has placed the story in colonial Haiti. Can you elaborate on this choice?

CCS:  Antony and Cleopatra is set in Egypt and Rome in the original text. Most contemporary people have just a vague understanding of what that period was like in history. It actually was colonial, as Egypt was kind of a colony of Rome at that time. Terrell decided to update it so people could relate to it a little more readily, and he chose Haiti and France around the time of the Haitian Revolution.

BH:  How much is the audience told about the setting and about the Haitian Revolution, either in the context of the play or explanatory notes in the program?

CCS:  In terms of the play itself, the costumes are reflective of it. On the Roman side, they're very French, almost Napoleonic military uniforms. On the Haitian side, it's much lighter, the costumes are almost like those of a court servant or slave. The music is a big reference point. There's Haitian music and courtly French music. And there is dance reflective of both cultures. On the French side, the movement sequences are more balletic, ballet-influenced. The choreographer, Gelan Lambert, has really worked to weave in the story of the countries through their movements. So these three things inform the audience that it's different.

I'm not sure what the program notes will be at the Public, but there was information about the Haitian Revolution in the programs at Stratford and in Miami.

BH:  You mentioned the use of music in this production. He used music beautifully in the Brother/Sister Plays at the Public.

CCS:  Michael Thurber is our composer. He's composed some original songs and also used Haitian songs that already existed. The music is one of the coolest things in the production. It sets this world apart right off the bat.

BH:  You are a playwright as well as a performer. What was it like for you working with Terrell, and how open and collaborative was the creative process?

CCS:  Terrell has been a really great director to work with. He's open and very receptive to lots of things, and he listens to what all of us as a company has to say. As a playwright, he's done really incredible job with Antony and Cleopatra. James Shapiro who's a Shakespeare scholar for the Public, spoke with us about the play when we were in rehearsals in London. Shakespeare's doing all the things he's good at here, but all at one time—the history, the tragedy, the romance, and the comedy. There are so many things going on in this play. There are battles. It moves very quickly; it's almost cinematic. The original play has 40 characters. Terrell pared it down. Now there are 10 actors in the play [some of whom play multiple parts]. He's done an amazing job of preserving the story and the poetry of this play while also making it a little bit more streamlined and accessible. I give him huge kudos for that.

BH:  What has it been like for you, as a playwright, watching this kind of reshaping of a classic work? Do you feel you have a different point of view? Is it educational?

CCS:  That's an interesting question. I love working on Shakespeare as an actor because doing so makes my brain work in a more interesting way. Hearing this language every day. Even when I was in grad school, I worked on Shakespeare as an actor. Saying the lines instead of just reading them, they get into your head. I'm sure it affects the way I write. Also, learning from the inside how a play works definitely influences the way that I write, and hear language, and respond to language. It feeds me creatively as a playwright to work on Shakespeare as an actor.

BH:  People keep finding ways of reinventing Shakespeare's stories, setting them in different times—his works are what one of my literature professors called "charismatic texts," in that people are drawn to explore them, and to retell them, again and again.

CCS:  I think that's interesting, because Shakespeare himself was doing that with stories. Antony and Cleopatra is not a story that he made up. [laughter] He did that with the plots of a lot of his plays, using stories that already existed. The stories he tells are human stories. The relationship between Antony and Cleopatra—you think of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. These two people can't escape each other and love each other, but also hate each other. That's a human story. Time doesn't change that. The story of Mark Antony's fall from grace from a huge, mythic figure to someone who's brought to his knees by a love affair. That is very relatable as well.

BH:  You recently had a fellowship with New Dramatists.

CCS:  I did. I was a Van Lier Fellow from 2012 until mid-2013. That was amazing! New Dramatists, as an organization, is one of the most caring and supportive communities. Playwriting can be really lonely. It's so different from acting. When you're writing a play, you're there in your own head. Until it gets on its feet, and you work with other people, which is pretty far down the line for most plays, it's really lonely. New Dramatists is an incredible community, and helped me so much. I'm still in touch with some of my mentors from there, and the other Van Lier Fellows too. It's one of the greatest things I have gotten to do in my career.

BH:  Is there anything you want to say about your projects? Have you been able to work on that aspect of your career during this period?

CCS:  I've been working on a new play, off and on. It's going to be a little challenging now, as we get busy with this show at the Public. But, we were off for a month around December, and I got to have a staged reading of one of my plays [Feathers and Teeth] at the Goodman Theater, as part of its New Stages Festival. That was really cool. After Antony and Cleopatra is over, one of my plays, called The Hunchback of Seville, is getting a production at the Washington Ensemble Theater in Seattle. I'll be there for that, with Jeff Lyman, a director with whom I've collaborated for a while. So, I've been extremely lucky to work as an actor and also keep writing and working on my own plays.

BH:  Is there anything else you want to say about Antony and Cleopatra?

CCS:  I can't wait for people to see this show because it's a really, really good production of a play that most people haven't seen. That's really exciting. My husband [actor Joby Earle] was one of my classmates at drama school. We were so immersed in Shakespeare at Yale, but neither of us had read or seen this play until I read and auditioned for it. He went to see it for the first time in Stratford. To see a Shakespeare play that you've never seen before and you don't know what's going to happen—that's such a rare treat. I think audiences will really respond to that.


Antony and Cleopatra at Public Theater. Previews begin February 18, 2014; opens March 5, 2014. For more information, visit www.publictheater.org.


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