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 copyright, the 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.