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Theatre in Review: Caesar and Cleopatra (Gingold Theatrical Group/Theatre Row)

Brenda Braxton, Teresa Avila Lim, Robert Cuccioli. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

David Staller, the man behind Gingold Theatrical Group, loves the works of George Bernard Shaw with a burning ardor -- a fact that, alone, makes him a valuable member of the New York theatre community. I only wish he trusted his devotion a little bit more; as it is, his passion at times grows desperate, making him do some distinctly odd things. Recently, he has abandoned his straightforward, yet eminently lucid, approach to his idol's plays, adding -- or, rather, pasting on them -- high concepts that do little more than get in the way of one's enjoyment. I'm thinking of his Heartbreak House of a season or two back, which, for no apparent reason, reset the play in a West End theatre during an air raid in the London Blitz. If it did nothing for the playwright's vision of an England imploding from insularity and excessive self-regard on the eve of World War I, it allowed for a couple of group sings.

Now we have Caesar and Cleopatra, a play that comes our way but rarely. (As far as I can tell, the last major production was in 1977, which, despite the casting of Rex Harrison and Elizabeth Ashley under the direction of Ellis Rabb, didn't tarry long.) In truth, this is probably due to the fact it belongs on nobody's list of Shaw's greatest works, being little more than an extended conversation about power -- its uses and abuses -- affixed to some minor martial skirmishes (all of which happen offstage), with a faint touch of romance. (In the program, Staller shrewdly notes that the relationship of the title characters, with its overtones of teacher and pupil, is not unlike that of Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle.) The scenes onstage often feel strangely jolly given the historical events unfolding just beyond our view. But the dialogue has a fair amount of crackle and its commentary about the pointlessness of violence and the eternal thirst for revenge never goes out of style.

Especially since Caesar and Cleopatra is such a rare visitor to these parts, one would like to see it presented straight up, if only to see how well it is aging. We are denied this opportunity at Theatre Row, where the production has been encumbered with a labored concept in which placing it on the site of a modern archeological dig. (The theatre is dotted with signs warning us that we have trespassed on an "Egyptian Government Archeological Trust excavation site.") Brian Prather's set, which stands in for several locations, consists of a mass of wooden scaffolding surrounded by muslin banners. Tracy Christensen's costumes, which are meant to bind ancient Egypt to the twenty-first century, end up being neither here nor there. Caesar, when first seen, is dressed out of the Tommy Bahama catalogue, with an untucked white shirt, white linen pants, and sandals. A few scenes later, he is draped in an expansive toga and sporting an impressive galea, or centurion's helmet. Ftatateeta, the nurse who so jealously guards Cleopatra, is decked out in a white pantsuit ensemble that calls to mind a Beverly Hills hostess circa 1972. Watching this production, one sometimes feels lost in a time tunnel.

Staller has also cut the play considerably, eliminating many characters and passages, in part, I suppose, to create a version that is manageable for a cast of seven. One character, Ptolemy -- Cleopatra's brother, husband, and royal rival -- has been reduced to a puppet that looks like it was found in the Cairo production of Avenue Q. All of this fiddling around makes one wonder: If Caesar and Cleopatra really demands so much plastic surgery, do we really need to be seeing it? If the director trusts the material so little, why should we?

Still, after a notably awkwardly staged opening featuring Shaw's lumbering meet-cute situation for the two leads, the production picks up considerably. Robert Cuccioli isn't the Caesar of one's dreams -- he fumbles with the script's more leaden humorous bits, especially the running gag involving Caesar's inability to pronounce Ftatateeta's name -- but he attacks Shaw's arguments with military vigor, driving home his points with the conviction of a general who has seen too much bloodshed and no longer believes in his own achievements. He is especially good with Caesar's refutation of the imperative of revenge ("And so, to the end of history, murder shall breed murder, always in the name of right and honor and peace, until the gods are tired of blood and create a race that can understand") and he has a nice way with his character's deep-dyed sense of irony. Teresa Avia Lim's Cleopatra is an impetuous tomboy, unafraid of vengeance and faintly baffled that her charms have so little effect on Caesar; she may seem a little too contemporary at times, and she lacks a certain stature in the later scenes, but she spars effectively with Cuccioli. You can understand how these two are drawn by the intellectual sparks they strike.

The rest of the cast also makes for amusing company. Brenda Braxton's Ftatateeta is an imposing figure, not to be intimidated by Roman generals or adolescent queens; if her newly minted role as narrator is rather strange, she carries it off with dignity. Jeff Applegate provides staunch support as Rufio, Caesar's eminently practical right-hand man. Jonathan Hadley is all sunny good sense as Britannus, Caesar's personal import from the conquered country of England. Dan Domingues lightly satirizes the role of Apollodorus, the carpet merchant who fancies himself Cleopatra's all-around style advisor. Rajesh Bose is solid in a trio of smaller roles, although at the performance I attended he seemed to be suffering from vocal distress. Overall, watching the company bat Shaw's ideas around the stage like a team of tennis pros can be highly pleasurable.

Still, Staller's direction may be pitched too much in favor of comedy. There is considerable darkness here, too, most of which is not touched upon and when the action turns toward the cutting of throats, the production suddenly feels boxed in by its cheerful attitude. Caesar and Cleopatra probably needs extra-special handling if it is to work for contemporary audiences, and I don't mean the elaborate retooling it gets here.

If Jamie Roderick's lighting, with its clouds, patterns, and torch effects, feels a little bit busy, Frederick Kennedy's sound design is exceptionally lively and evocative -- a series of crowd scenes, trumpet flourishes, and Middle-Eastern melodies; I especially liked the menacing tread of an army on the march. But this revival is a series of advances and retreats; I'm awfully glad that Shaw has such a defender in Staller, but I hope that in the future he doesn't feel any need to apologize for him. --David Barbour

(27 September 2019)

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