Drag Queen of the Nile: A Gay Antony + Cleopatra

HumanBeingCurious Productions resets Antony and Cleopatra's tryst as man-on-man.

Orion Bradshaw and Chip Sherman canoodle in HumanBeingCurious' Antony and Cleopatra.

Orion Bradshaw and Chip Sherman canoodle in HumanBeingCurious’ Antony and Cleopatra.

My, my, what a gay week! In the wake of a Supreme Court victory for gay marriage, there’s a Shakespeare show at MilePost 5 that recasts Antony and Cleopatra as (gasp) a gay couple. Complete with a post-play drag revue and an open bar, it’s a decent bet for a date night, or more broadly, a down-with-DOMA celebration. (Get it.)

The show begins gradually. To the tune of “Johnny Are You Queer,” before the house lights go down, we watch Cleopatra’s “girls” apply their makeup. It’s clear that these will be our clowns: Phillip J. Berns as eunuch Mardian hearkens Phyllis Diller, while Amanda Lee as handmaiden Charmian visually riffs on The Drew Carrey Show’s Mimi and proves a comic standout, puffing a cigarette, rolling her eyes, and mewing and pouting to get her way. Mariel Sierra,who as Alexas splits her loyalty between Cleopatra and her lez-bro Antony, is less over-the-top, interpreting her role with some butch attire and slapstick.

But when Cleopatra emerges, “she” (Chip Sherman) is deadly serious. Batting her extravagant black wings of eyeliner and whipping an ultra-long, crimson-ribboned braid over her shoulder, she leads the ensemble in a thigh-smacking, skirt-swishing Beyoncé number before retiring to the boudoir with Antony (Orion J. Bradshaw), who’s equally committed, pursuing his Egyptian lover with abandon.

Post5 Director Ty Boice joins the party, shoulders tightened for tackle where they should be loosened for hiphop shrugs. He’s being a good sport here, taking a supporting role. Though set at Post5, this show is produced by micro-company HumanBeingCurious, whose director Cassandra Schwanke played Lady Macbeth for Post5 earlier this season and ended up engaged to then-costar Boice. Schwanke makes no secret about who she staged this show for—and no, it’s not Boice; it’s gorgeous gay actor Chip Sherman. Already luminous in Post5’s Arabian Nights and on the rise with a summer role as Mercutio, Sherman’s talents virtually screamed for a lead part. But like a Wade McCollum or a John Cameron Mitchell, he slips most comfortably into that silken-dressing-gowned gap between genders—a no-man’s land where few lead roles dare to tread.

Amanda Lee, Chip Sherman and Orion Bradshaw.

Amanda Lee, Chip Sherman and Orion Bradshaw.

Even so, why COULDN’T Cleopatra—the legendary queen with the fiercest makeup and the wickedest (ahem) snake—be a man? If you think about it, it makes at least as much sense as the ongoing whispers about the Bard’s sexual complexity, or the more recent Queen Elizabeth speculation. Anyway, it made sense to Sherman and Schwanke, and they sell it. Sherman is NOT performing the Elizabethan trope of man-playing-woman here; he’s emphatically playing a drag queen in a same-sex relationship. There’s a definite difference.

Certain classic lines take a whole new flavor when “the queen” is “a queen.” Antony (Orion J. Bradshaw) joins Cleopatra in inflecting many of the Bard’s words with new innuendo, such as “powerful man-date,” which he breaks into three words and punctuates with a lustful ass-slap.

Beyond the pair’s pillow-talk, much of the new double meaning falls to Antony’s embittered servant Enobarbus (Ty Boice), and here Boice is on-point, spitting crisp diction into doubly-hateful lines about Antony “bending” to “a tawny front,” noting that Cleopatra “is cunning beyond all men,” and scornfully reassuring himself that “We are WOMEN’S men.”

But now Schwanke adds ANOTHER linguistic twist, translating just some of the lines into contemporary, informal English while leaving the deep, heartfelt stuff in the original Elizabethan verse. Cleopatra’s girls sling modern slang, calling each other “Bitch” and exclaiming “Lock it up!” and “Shut the front door!” (Both of which mean “contain yourself”—which, comically, the trio does poorly.) As a Shakespeare Originalist, maybe I should hate hearing this fast-and-loose language jammed between the poetry—but as a onetime director, I don’t. Here’s why…

Doing Shakespeare well usually requires the following homework: 1) translating Shakespeare’s words into your own, 2) speaking those words aloud, and 3) overlaying the modern inflections you discover in that process, back onto the ancient text with which you are tasked. If you DON’T approach the Bard this way, you’re likely to sound canned, and to apply too few variations of emotional tone to lines that demand abrupt asides and bipolar emotional switchbacks. The Urban Dictionary moments of Schwanke’s script seem to suggest that at least two-thirds of that work has gotten done. Hence, paradoxically, changing the words brings actors closer to the meaning of the text than if they hadn’t bothered to explore.

The play’s war councils are framed as mobster meet-ups, with Berns darting out of his spot as Cleopatra’s eunuch to play Caesar, a sunglassed Bond-style villain whose pan-cake makeup seems to signify his vanity. John Bruner is the scheming Menas; Rowan Morrison plays the sycophant Lepidus; Winstron Bishof is the cool-headed mob middle-manager Pompey. All these good fellas hold their own in counterpoint to Cleo’s girls, as conveyors of their respective leading men. Bradshaw as Antony shoulders the lion’s share of the dramatic burden as a man torn between dual desires of love and power. Romance and death are impeccably acted even at the black box theater’s close range, but overall, the scenes are tighter than the transitions between them. Also, some of the theater’s equipment needs (especially a new sound system) impact the show slightly. Thankfully, Post5’s already got plans to resolve these issues soon using recently-won grant money.

As we move into a summer full of Shakespeare and Post5 gears up for the comic whirlwind of “Complete Works,” treatments like this will keep the much-trodden field fresh.

A. L. Adams also writes for  The Portland Mercury and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine.
Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch  | The Portland Mercury

Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

Comments are closed.