REVIEW: Shaw’s “Caesar & Cleopatra” is superbly rendered by the Gingold Theatrical Group
The Gingold Theatrical Group, which is singularly dedicated to promoting the work and “humanitarian ideals” of playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), is currently presenting a rare revival of Shaw’s 1898 play “Caesar & Cleopatra”.
A proto-“Pygmalion”, written 13 years before that more popular and influential piece, this non-love story is a political, “almost historical” comedy about an imagined student-teacher relationship between Cleopatra, then the exiled teenage queen of the Ptolemaic Kingdom hiding in Alexandria, and Julius Caesar, ruler of the Roman Empire intervening in the civil war between Cleopatra and her younger brother, Ptolemy XIII.
Last seen on Broadway in 1977, and earlier re-imagined as the flop musical “Her First Roman” in 1968, this excellent production makes a convincing case for reconsidering “Caesar & Cleopatra” as a play worthy of more examination and rightful placement in the canon of classics.
Audiences at the cozy Theatre Row encounter an Egyptian “excavation site”, the stage occupied by a towering wood scaffold decked with white drapes (design by Brian Prather), an fitting setting for Director David Staller’s excavation of this surprising play, an epic story reduced in scale for seven racially and ethnically diverse actors on a single, stationary set, and presented with playful punch at a humane length of two hours.
An appropriately imperious Robert Cuccioli (“Jekyll & Hyde”) stars as Caesar, alongside Teresa Avia Lim’s spunky Cleopatra, and Brenda Braxton (“Smokey Joe’s Café”) as Ftatateeta, spirited handmaiden to Cleopatra and the play’s narrator. Per a program insert, contemporaneous with its completion, Shaw lamented that the play he wrote was too big and operatic for its own good, fearing its “Christmas tree of sparkle” would overwhelm the heft of the story contained within; Mr. Staller, and his fine cast, ably steer clear of Shaw’s concern, aided by the intimacy of the theatre, and an effective staging that keeps the action moving and the characters in focus.
While Shaw’s sympathetic portrait of Caesar as a sagacious and merciful emperor imparting his battle-won knowledge upon an impetuous teenage queen might reek of 19th century English imperialism, their relationship, and Cleopatra’s arc over the course of the play, is both compelling and rich, and Shaw’s decision to orient the piece over their exchange of ideas makes it a love story about the making of a great leader, rather than the romantic tale of Caesar and Cleopatra that is typically dramatized (and perhaps more historically accurate).
Some parts of this production don’t work, like the use of a literal puppet as the puppet king of Egypt and a recurring joke about the mispronunciation of Ftatateeta’s name (doubly cringeworthy given that the part is played by a black actress), but as a study in leadership and a fascinating fictional illumination of historical figures, this “Caesar & Cleopatra” is superbly rendered and worth checking out.
Bottom line: The Gingold Theatrical Group is currently presenting a rare revival of Shaw’s 1898 play “Caesar & Cleopatra”; superbly rendered, well-acted, and keenly directed, this production makes a convincing case for reconsidering “Caesar & Cleopatra” as a play worthy of more examination and rightful placement in the canon of classics.
“Caesar & Cleopatra”
Gingold Theatrical Group
410 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036
Running Time: 2 hours (including one intermission)
Opening Night: September 24, 2019
Final Performance: October 12, 2019