For all its exoticism, passion and action, "Antony and Cleopatra" is hardly a known quantity around New York. The last time Shakespeare's romantic tragedy played Broadway, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh were starring in 1951. The last time the Public Theater ventured near the Nile was 1997, when Vanessa Redgrave both directed and starred in a time-tripping version so eccentric and daffy that, ultimately, I wondered if she were just seeing how many actors Cleopatra could kiss in three hours.
The new revival at the Public is, according to the credits, "edited" and directed by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the provocative playwright of "The Brother/Sister Plays," artist-in-residence at the theater and recent recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant.
What "edited" means is that the play has been cut and rearranged. There's a narrator, the excellent Chukwudi Iwuji, to tell us where we are ("Meanwhile, in Caesar's camp . . . ") and a transposition to 18th century Saint-Domingue (later Haiti) under Napoleonic rule that makes a narrator all too necessary. The staging -- a coproduction with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Public and Miami's GableStage in McCraney's hometown -- has the English actors talking Brit Shakespeare and the Americans mutating the verse into Caribbean dialect.
All this might have its own internal sense, but only if the tragedy had a percentage of the emotional heat that Jonathan Cake brings to his seductions as a rakish, smirking Mark Antony. Joaquina Kalukango has a pleasant earthy beauty as Cleopatra, but little royal stature, and their clutches feel less urgent as the drama gets serious.
To make the comings and goings more confusing, nearly half of the small cast plays different parts in different countries. Just when you know that someone is dead, he shows up looking awfully familiar as somebody else.
Samuel Collings makes a fine, tightly wound Octavius Caesar, and Chivas Michael, as the slinkily effeminate voodoo Soothsayer, adds his stirring high tenor to the Caribbean-infused combo playing above.
The set makes the most out of a reflecting pool and silk cloth. The Caribbean women wear chaste white linens. Except when wearing fringed epaulets, the men show lots of skin. Finally, fatally, the asp that kills Cleopatra looks like a joke.
WHAT "Antony and Cleopatra"
WHERE Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.
INFO $65-$75; 212-967-7555; publictheater.org.
BOTTOM LINE Shakespeare lost in the Caribbean.