The iconic Caesar and Cleopatra story has rarely been more fun. Ably interpreted by Director David Staller, the Bernard Shaw play raises eyebrows and evokes grins so often, murder and mayhem take a back seat. Note the poster as you enter: Egyptian Government Archeological Trust Excavation Site…pure tongue-in-cheek Staller.
Cleopatra’s attendant Ftatateeta (Brenda Braxton) opens and closes the piece as well as acting as intermittent narrator – somewhere between Midsummer’s Puck and a stylized Sybil.
Weary and reflective, solitary Caesar (Robert Cuccioli) wanders out to a desert sphinx and addresses her: “I conquer and you endure… strangers to the race of men and each other.” In response, he hears, “Climb up here or the Romans will eat you!” Venturing out of hiding, Cleopatra (Teresa Avia Lim) bounces down to meet him. Neither knows who the other is.
Every bit a tom-boyish adolescent, the incipient queen peppers Caesar with questions as she tears around the structure. (Terrific.) When he rises to leave, she tells him he’s not dismissed. “Do you know fear, oh ancient being?” the girl asks. “I’m not allowed fear.” She’s cocky, stubborn, and naïve. Referring to himself in the third person, the general is paternal and amused.
You know the story. Ptolemy is too young to take the throne. Rebel armies, led by his Counselor Pothinus and others, attempt to take Alexandria. Caesar works to secure power for Cleopatra (and Rome) while teaching her what he feels she needs to know to rule. There’s no sex in this iteration, but we do get to see Cleo get unrolled from a carpet.
Battles are major, clear and few so as not to distract us from the players. One murder begets another. (Blood is stylistically depicted). The loss of the city’s irreplaceable library is plausibly dismissed by Caesar as necessary. Shaw’s ending is deft.
Set by Director David Staller, the production’s tone is respectful, but wry. Relationships – Caesar/Cleopatra, Cleopatra/Ftatateeta, Caesar/his men – are adroitly realized. Homework seems to have been done, decisions made. Use of space on and off stage is expansive and often fun. It’s to Staller’s credit that he manages to embed Shaw’s intentions, based on scholarship, without disturbing authoritative flow.
Teresa Avia Lim (Cleopatra) conquers her character as she does Caesar, at all times credible and a pleasure to watch. She evolves from rambunctious to watchful to magisterial with extreme subtlety. At first unaware, the young queen is freely, affectionately physical with Caesar. Later, this becomes an offer. Avia Lim never goes too fast or too far. Cleopatra is sufficiently confident to order a killing, yet amply girlish, reveling in the promise of Antony’s return.
As Caesar, Robert Cuccoli offers a thoughtful, fallible man, not the exaggerated leader to whom we’re accustomed. Staller’s apt notes suggest Shaw “presents the world with the sort of man he thought might initiate a new society.” Cuccoli inhabits magnanimity. Caesar’s growing affection for the queen despite awareness of age difference and position is well played. I only wish we’d seen more bearing to offer contrast.
Ftatateeta (Brenda Braxton) presents a formal personage, imperious but devoted. Except for over-consciousness of the way her costume falls, she’s excellent. Rajesh Bose (Pothinus) handles the puppet (great idea, great looking). Ptolemy well. The actor could successfully be a bit more obsequious. Dan Domingues’ Apollodorus is way over the top, as if from another play, but admittedly a hoot.
Evocative music/sound design (Frederick Kennedy) not only creates specific atmosphere, but pops up unexpectedly. Hear Caesar and Co. splash as they dive off the stage into the Aegean.
Brian Panther’s set is an effective, multi-level construction-in-progress of raw wood and drapes, the latter offering subtle “canvas” for stars and clouds. (Love the torches.)
Tracy Christensen’s more or less contemporary costumes work well except for Miami retiree white belts and some tacky netting on Ftatateeta’s ensemble. Gradual change of Cleopatra’s attire from adolescent to queen is skillful. Headpieces are swell.
Photos by Carol Rosegg
Gingold Theatrical Group presents
Bernard Shaw’s Caesar & Cleopatra
Directed by David Staller
410 West 42nd Street
Through October 12, 2019