BWW Review: Robert Cuccioli, Teresa Avia Lim, Brenda Braxton in Shaw's Comedy of Political Maneuvering, CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA
Imagine if Henry Higgins had wanted Eliza to end up with Freddy all along and you'll get a sense of where George Bernard Shaw was heading with his 1898 comedy of political maneuvering, Caesar and Cleopatra, which premiered over a dozen years before his more enduring classic, PYGMALION.
The 42-year-old playwright was making quite a name for himself in the final years of the 19th Century, most notably with a rather traditional romantic comedy, ARM AND THE MAN, and a sly exploration of the business side of sex, MRS. WARREN'S PROFESSION, but in Caesar and Cleopatra, at least by a strict reading of the text sans any extra interpretive oomph, the relationship between the male and female heterosexual protagonists is fueled more from the recognition of how they may mutually benefit one another's position as a powerful leader.
Scripted to be played by a cast of dozens, director David Staller has adapted the text to nimbly fit Gingold Theatrical Group's company of seven actors in the primary roles. Scenes involving Roman soldiers and numerous members of Egypt's royal court have their lines reassigned and/or altered, guided by Staller's use of Shaw's original manuscript, various notes, drafts for his 1945 screenplay and his proposal for a newly conceived London production shortly before his death in 1950.
Scenic designer Brian Prather keeps it simple with a stage of scaffolding draped in white fabric that matches the predominantly white palette of costume designer Tracy Christensen's togas, robes and dresses.
The role of Cleopatra's chief nurse Ftatateeta has been beefed up into a narrator for the piece, played with fierce, commanding presence and plenty of elitist attitude by that sensational Broadway triple threat Brenda Braxton.
"Cleopatra will not fail you. She is born to rule," she advises unseen Roman conquerors, who have just defeated Egypt's army and wish to restore order to the uncertain throne of its monarchy.
As she exits, a weary Julius Caesar enters, played with warmth, wisdom and self-effacing humor by Robert Cuccioli. Contemplating his legacy at the foot of the Sphinx, he's called upon by a frightened teenage Cleopatra (Teresa Avia Lim) who, not knowing who he is, pleads for the "old gentleman" to protect her from the conquering Roman.
After that initial comical encounter, the young queen sees in Caesar a wise and powerful teacher, who can help her dethrone her brother, Ptolemy, literally presented as a puppet controlled by his regent, the ambitious eunuch Pothinus (Rajesh Bose), and support her effort to firmly establish rule.
In Cleopatra, Caesar sees the opportunity to mold the child into a respected leader, who will carry on his ideals and serve effectively as an ally. Cuccioli and Lim do a terrific job of playing out their complicated relationship. Caesar certainly recognizes Cleopatra's increasing allure as she grows more confident and commanding, but he's also aware of her attraction to another Roman, Marc Antony, and considers an "alliance" between them to be most beneficial to Rome.
Lim, on the other hand, initially displays the queen's frustration that she cannot control her mentor with jealousy, but eventually sees herself as a significant leader in her own right, and not one to make decisions only as they suit the powerful Roman.
The audience's knowledge of how each will meet a tragic fate lends a bit of melancholy to the proceedings, but Slaw's incisive wit is well-served, and the swiftly moving mounting provides plenty to fascinate and entertain.