Thursday, September 12, 2019

Caesar and Cleopatra

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of seeing Gingold Theatrical Group's delightful production of Caesar and Cleopatra, now playing at the Lion on Theatre Row.

Caesar and Cleopatra was George Bernard Shaw's ninth major play. He had burst upon the scene as a dramatist at the end of 1892 when the Independent Theatre Society produced his play Widowers' Houses, which he had actually begun as a collaboration with the critic William Archer.

Shaw later wrote The Philanderer and Mrs. Warren's Profession, which he published together with Widowers' Houses calling them all Unpleasant Plays. He also published a companion volume with Pleasant Plays which consisted of Arms and the Man, Candida, You Never Can Tell and a short one act about Napoleon called The Man of Destiny.

In 1897, Shaw wrote one of my favorites of his works, The Devil's Disciple, a tale of the American Revolution in which characters find that their own true greatness lies in a different direction than they ever imagined. Dick Dudgeon, who proclaims himself to be the Devil's disciple, finds himself on the path to saintly martyrdom, while a local minister raises hell as the commander of a militia.

With both The Man of Destiny and The Devil's Disciple, Shaw was dealing with major events of history, but through a personal lens as much as a geo-political one. History, the plays seem to say, is made by simple men making simple mistakes, scarcely knowing who they are themselves even as they reshape the world. Both deal with the late eighteenth century, which in the 1890s was still relatively recent in the grand scheme of things.

Caesar and Cleopatra takes the premise of human beings with their own foibles and flaws making history and sets it back in the time when the Roman Empire was still struggling to be born. When the play opens, Julius Caesar has defeated his rival Pompey and should be the undisputed master of the Mediterranean, but with only a handful of legions, he gets involved in a power struggle in Egypt that could be his doom. The fates not just of Caesar and Cleopatra but the whole world hang in the balance.

In order for Shaw could establish his copyrightthe play had a staged reading in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1899. He published it in 1901 together with The Devil's Disciple and another play, Captain Brassbound's Conversion, under the title Three Plays for Puritans. Its premiere did not come until 1906, when it opened in New York with Johnston Forbes-Robertson and Gertrude Elliott in the title roles. It was an elaborate production which the New York Times hailed as "an artistic triumph." While the costumes and sets were given great attention, the text was treated as by no means sacred, and an entire act (or at least its equivalent) was eliminated.

For the production now showing on Theatre Row, GTG has taken a different approach. In 1906, the New York Times found the production "rich and apparently correct in archeological detail." Audiences today would probably not crave such historical realism even if theatre companies could afford it. Consequently, Brian Prather's set design suggests an archeological excavation site rather than an Egypt of 2,000 years ago. Costume designer Tracy Christensen dresses the cast in modern clothes, which can then have togas, jewels, crowns, and armor layered on top of them, hinting at period clothing rather than slavishly imitating it.

That means the focus is on the acting, and fortunately the cast is more than up to the challenge. Cleopatra's nurse Ftatateeta, played by the incomparable Brenda Braxton, draws the audience into the piece by describing the scene for us, much of that description being taken directly from Shaw's infamously poetic stage directions. Robert Cuccioli, who was wonderful earlier this year in The White Devil, plays Julius Caesar as an all-too-human conqueror who is painfully aware of how fragile even the mightiest accomplishments can be. He is joined by Teresa Avia Lim as the girlish Cleopatra, who must learn how to believe herself a queen until she finally becomes one.

The rest of the cast is quite wonderful as well. Rajesh Bose, who played Alfred Doolittle in Bedlam's recent revival of Pygmalion, is building quite a reputation as an interpreter of Shaw, this time playing Pothinus, the regent who treats Cleopatra's brother Ptolemy as a puppet (in this production, literally so). Jeff Applegate is a gruff and faithful Rufio, and Jonathan Hadley (who previously appeared in GTG's Widowers' Houses) is suitably stuffy as Britannus. Dan Domingues manages to temporarily steal the show as the outlandish Apollodorus the Sicilian, who makes the most famous carpet delivery in history.

Director David Staller brings all of the elements of the production together with considerable aplomb, and the night I saw it, audiences expressed their appreciation. Shaw's epic comedy makes small statements about big events. Rather than moving us with the grand and impressive, it impresses us with how little things taken together can build up to something grand, and that's something which this production definitely delivers.

Caesar and Cleopatra is playing until October 12th, so get your tickets now!

Monday, September 9, 2019

Drury Lane

Earlier this year, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane shut down for renovations, including making all levels accessible by elevator.

That wasn't what it was like when I first went there. Since I'd bought a ticket way up in the cheap seats, I couldn't even enter through the lobby. Instead, I had to go around the corner to the side entrance--the one that had been built for servants during the 19th century--and walk up seemingly endless rows of stairs. And, personally, I wouldn't have had it any other way.

Don't get me wrong. It's important that we make theatres accessible for everyone. I'm just glad I had a chance to see Drury Lane the old-fashioned way, the way servants and other working-class folks saw it during the Regency period when the building first opened in London. The building that's there now goes back to 1812, though it's legacy goes back even farther.

During the Restoration, Thomas Killigrew got a patent from King Charles II to set up a theatre troupe known as the King's Company. At first, they just performed in a tennis court, as was sometimes done in France at that time, but in 1663 Killigrew opened a theatre on Bridges Street near Drury Lane. The flat area near the stage, what we today would call the orchestra, was known as the pit, and around it were boxes for wealthier patrons.

Originally, the pit was uncovered, but later the management added a glazed dome to (try to) keep out the rain. Unlike audience members in the pit of Shakespeare's Globe who stood, the audiences in the pit of Killigrew's theatre sat on backless benches. Even upper-class men would sit there to get a better view of the action. Respectable ladies, on the other hand, tended to stay in their boxes, as they didn't want to be mistaken for the infamous "orange girls" who sold refreshments (and sometimes other things) to audience members.

The rival Duke's Company had set up a magnificent theatre in a former tennis court located at Lincoln's Inn Fields. It included elaborate stage machinery hidden by a proscenium arch. Not to be outdone, Killigrew's theatre contained a proscenium and shutter-and-groove system for changing scenery. Actors weren't used to this setup, though, and continued to perform on the large apron in front of the proscenium. It was on this stage that Nell Gwyn began her career and attracted the attentions of the king himself. Unfortunately, the building was destroyed by fire in 1672.

A replacement opened in 1674 and was referred to as "Drury Lane" since that street ran along the east side of the building, though the audience still entered through a passage from Bridges Street. Again, there was a pit surrounded by boxes. There were also two galleries of cheap seats above the boxes. This inexpensive part of the theatre was the "eighteen-penny place" alluded to in William Wycherley's The Country Wife. We don't know exactly what this building looked like, but the Theatre Royal Bristol was partially based on it when that theatre was built in 1766, so we have at least a general idea.

By the end of the 18th century, the Theatre Royal at Drury Lane seemed cramped and outdated, so it was torn down and replaced by a brand-new structure in 1794. It was huge, capable of holding up to 3,600 people. Richard Brinsley Sheridan managed the theatre and bore most of the expenses for its construction. It was a gamble, but he was a gambling man. As long as he packed the auditorium each night, he would be able to not only make his money back, but to make a fortune. Then, on February 24, 1809, the theatre burned down--only fifteen years after it had opened. Sheridan pretty much lost everything.

The present-day theatre opened at the same location in 1812 with a production of Hamlet. Its renovations are probably necessary, but I do hope they retain a bit of the history of the place. For me, Drury Lane will always be special.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Upcoming Shaw Discussion

If you haven't seen G.B. Shaw's play Caesar and Cleopatra, Gingold Theatrical Group is performing it at The Lion Theatre at Theatre Row until October 12th. And if you're interested in a lively discussion of the play, I'll be taking part in a Shaw Symposium at Symphony Space on Monday, September 23rd.

Officially, I'll be discussing "Building the Shaw canon with Caesar and Cleopatra" as a roundtable of Shaw scholars share our thoughts on the play and GTG's production. I'll be joined by Stephen Brown-Fried, Ellen Dolgin, Andrew M. Flescher, Bob Gaines, David McFadden, and Liam Prendergast. GTG Artistic Director David Staller will be moderating the discussion.

GTG has created some of the best and most innovative Shaw productions I've seen, including an amazing Widowers' Houses and last year's Heartbreak House, which also played at The Lion. I have high hopes for their Caesar and Cleopatra, which stars Robert Cuccioli and Teresa Avia Lim in the title roles. He was wonderful earlier this year in The White Devil, and she made a memorable appearance in The Taming of the Shrew in Central Park in 2016.

The Shaw Symposium will be at 7:00 pm, and there is a $10 donation necessary. You can get tickets through Symphony Space's website, or by coming to their box office at 95th and Broadway. Hope to see you there on the 23rd!

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Scenes from the Toy Theatre

I have previously blogged about toy theatres. If you follow my posts, you might remember I even have a toy theatre of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, and recently acquired reproduction plates for a toy theatre of another Dickens novel, Oliver Twist.

Well, I recently acquired through the wonders of the Internet some authentic vintage toy theatre plates. Most of them were published by Pollock's, a printing firm that reissued a bunch of older designs starting in the 1870s and that lasted well into the 20th century. Here's a Pollock's backdrop for a play called The Brigand:

Many of the toy theatres were designed to mimic the popular Christmas pantomimes, which usually were send-ups of classic fairy tales like Cinderella. Here's a scene plate for a toy theatre version of Cinderella. Notice, you could cut out the minute hand on the top and place it on the face of the clock. That way, someone manipulating the toy theatre could move the clock ever closer to midnight.

To add a greater sense of depth, people could also cut out wings and place them on the sides an inch or two in front of the backdrop. Pollock's wasn't the only manufacturer, of course, and these sides were published by J.K. Green and sold by J. Redington (who was actually the father-in-law of Benjamin Pollock). Notice, the sides were meant to be used for a variety of different plays.

Sometimes you get a miscellaneous plate like this one, with lots of scene pieces that could be cut out and used on different parts of the toy stage. No matter how they were used, they were pasted to some sort of backing, often thin cardboard or pasteboard, and then placed within the toy proscenium.

Unfortunately, I didn't get any character plates, but maybe I'll find some for sale one day!

Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Rival Queens

Nathaniel Lee's Restoration-era tragedy The Rival Queens tells the story of the death of Alexander the Great through the lens of the women in his life.

Wait... Alexander the Great... and women? Well, yes. Many of the stories about Alexander that circulated in early modern Europe linked him to various women he was alleged to have loved.

For instance, in Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus the Emperor asks to see the paramour of Alexander. This paramour is presumably Thais, a courtesan who allegedly convinced the conqueror to burn the famed palace of Persepolis.

While Thais is name-checked in The Rival Queens, the play focuses instead on Roxana, his first wife, and Statira, a Persian princess he married as part of a plan to unify Greek and Persian civilizations. When the play opens, Statira is distraught because Alexander had promised her he would never bed Roxana again, but he seems to have broken that promise. Statira's opening lines show her in a conventional state of grief:

               Give me a knife, a draught of poison, flames!
               Swell, heart, break, break, thou stubborn thing!
               Now, by the sacred fire, I'll not be held!
               Why do ye wish me life, yet stifle me
               For want of air? pray give me leave to walk.

When Alexander hears how upset Statira is, he blames his hook-up with Roxana on beer goggles, claiming she seduced him while he was drunk. He professes his undying love for Statira and asks her mother and sister to help him win her back again. If he cannot, he vows to renounce his empire and live out the remainder of his life in the countryside, forsaking worldly glory.

The third act introduces Statira's rival queen, Roxana. She is determined to not have to share Alexander, and proclaims:

               Roxana and Statira, they are names
               That must forever jar; eternal discord,
               Fury, revenge, disdain, and indignation
               Tear my swoll'n breast, make way for fire and tempest.

Well, that's just fine with Alexander, who doesn't want anything to do with Roxana anymore, anyway. Celebrating his reconciliation with Statira, he invites his faithful soldiers to a feast. It is at that feast that a group of conspirators plans to poison Alexander, and they attempt to gain the aid of Roxana. Instead of helping them slay her lover, she resolves to murder her rival.

That murder occurs in the play's climactic fifth act. The two rival queens meet, and Roxana kills Statira while Alexander himself is also dying of poison. And what of Hephestion, the notorious male lover of Alexander? Well, he appears in the play, but as a suitor for the hand of Statira's sister. Lee also banishes Hephestion from the fifth act of the play, having his death merely reported.

The emphasis on the female characters might be linked to the fact that they were played by... well... women. The play's epilogue threatens to return boy actors to the stage in women's roles if the audience does not leave the professional female actresses alone. Lee wrote The Rival Queens sometime around 1676 or 1677, so women on the professional English stage were still a relatively new phenomenon. Perhaps, then, it should be unsurprising that a Restoration-era tragedy about Alexander focused on his relationships with women.