The Review: Gingold Theatrical presents Bernard Shaw’s Caesar & Cleopatra
I have never seen Bernard Shaw’s Caesar & Cleopatra, a play written in 1898 depicting a fictionalized account of the mentor-like relationship between the two legendary characters, and I don’t know if I was all that interested to be honest. But one of my theatre junkie friends really wanted to, and after seeing the joyfully fun Heartbreak House last September also produced by the Gingold Theatrical Group within the same confines of Theatre Row, I was game to give it a shot (with hesitation). Caesar and Cleopatra, as I was reminded numerous times by my theatre companion, was the basis for the lavish 1945 film starring Claude Rains as Caesar and Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra. Shaw, it turns out, wasn’t all that pleased with the scope of the film, feeling that he had made a tactical error writing something so grand and operatic. He was envisioning something more intimate and thoughtful. My buddy kept telling me how funny and fun this evening was going to be, and he was right, sort of, by half I would say, generously. The other half, not as funny nor as fun as I had hoped.
First performed in March 1899 at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle, the comedy gave us a Julius Caesar who was particular interested and dedicated to literature and the arts, who also believed that people have not been morally improved by civilization and technology. Shaw would have been horrified by our current culture if that was truly the case, where intimacy has been drowned in a sea of technology and access to information. But he did share a passion for the writings of Shakespeare, even though it is said that he wished his plays were more socially aware. You can hear the ode to Shakespeare in the text, particularly in the way the piece is directed by David Staller (GTG’s Major Barbara), although, to play the piece as if it is written by Shakespeare, which this production does on more than one occasion, strips the frivolity and replaces it with a seriousness that drowns the laughs. It also makes the play more museum relic-like rather than finding the modern tones of political and social attitudes bopping in the waves. It stays a float, mind you, but this Caesar and Cleopatra slips a bit in their ability to fully captivate and entertain this audience member.
Brenda Braxton (Broadway’s Smokey Joe’s Cafe) energetically brings us into the dreamy tale-telling with a strong regal presence, giving us a taste of what is floating on the water. In this restructuring, as guided by Shaw’s production notes, letters, and magazine articles the director has attempted to tell the story in the way Shaw might have proposed. She is not the Egyptian god Ra, but Ftatateeta, the servant, nurse, caretaker, and stern mistress to the young, feisty, and vulnerable Cleopatra, played with girlish charm by Teresa Avia Lim (LCT/Broadway’s Junk). It’s a compelling nod to feminism and equality of power, in a way, as she speaks with a strong authority, reminding us of the importance of being an active participant in our lives, regardless of the amount of courage required. She demands to be told what year it is, asking us the telling questions: “Where are we? Is it now, is it then?“, before diving into the dream-like story of a hypothetical time when Caesar, well portrayed by the strong Robert Cuccioli (Red Bull’s The White Devil), meets the young Queen of Egypt. With a nod to the modern excavation site, scenic designer Brian Prather (Off-Broadway’s Daniel’s Husband), with a sure footed blending of modern and period costumes by Tracy Christensen (Kate Hamill’s Pride & Prejudice), lighting by Jamie Roderick (ATA’s Safeword), and sound design by Frederick Kennedy (TAC’s Native Son) summons forth Cleopatra, with school girl charm, who is hiding out in the desert far from her (literally) puppet-King brother, a young child King who is hand held by the power hungry Pothinus (Ptolemy, Sentinel) played by Rajesh Bose (Bedlam’s Pygmalion). It’s a charmingly smart beginning, playfully skipping around the historically inaccurate set up to bring forth some feisty ideals to chew over and play with, while not getting caught up in the age difference and the power inequality.
It is not love, thankfully, but politics that brings the transformed Cleopatra towards the older Julius Caesar. He values the importance of good government and tries to instill these ideals in the immature Cleopatra, teaching her to assume a more regal and Queen-like stance, in a very Henry Higgins kind of way. It’s a relationship that Shaw would develop more fully in Pygmalion thirteen years later. But here, the teacher of a willful and eccentric girl who would become his student (rather than a lover) denounces violence and vengefulness, offering up the value of clemency, strategy, and a lofty conviction to compassion to keep the peace. At several points in the play, Caesar lets his enemies go free instead of punishing or killing them, an approach that confuses the handsome and muscular Rufio, portrayed strongly by the well armed Jeff Applegate (Pioneer Theatre’s West Side Story). Britannus, sneakingly well played by Jonathan Hadley (Broadway’s Jersey Boys) understands the wisdom of this approach as does Shaw, who hammers home the point when Cleopatra haughtily orders Ftatateeta to kill Pothinus because of his treachery, but in reality, the murder is ordered because of his insulting actions against the Queen. And even though this most likely doesn’t follow historical fact, the revenge made on the Queen’s behalf enrages the Egyptian population, who rises up in revolt, and almost causes the death of all.
It’s a wide and deep story, one that reflects much of Shaw’s political/social beliefs, but when performed with a wise and wild wit, like Dan Domingues’s (Public’s Wild Goose Dreams) portrayal of Apolloduorus, the Sicilian, the boat stays upright. When the play is weighed down by serious diction and delivery, that same boat starts to take on water. I wouldn’t say Caesar’s ship had sunk, as it fortunately has some strong arms like Applegate’s and Domingues’s to keep the crew from taking on too much water. But in the end, Shaw’s play floats, never truly living up to its potential, but not sinking into the deep dark ocean that surrounds them.