By: Bernard Carragher
September 26, 2019: The Gingold Theatrical Group is presenting Bernard Shaw’s cool comedy of a very young Cleopatra (Teresa Avia Lim) and an elderly Julius Caesar (Robert Cuccioli) at Theatre Row on West 42nd Street. The wit is slim in this production of “Caesar and Cleopatra,” though the Shavian jokes remain in director David Staller’s new version of a modern classic about ancient characters of another era. Mr. Staller has shaved the cast down to seven actors. The last Broadway incarnation with Rex Harrison and Elizabeth Ashley had a cast of thirty. He also lets Cleopatra’s servant lady, the grim and brutal Ftatateeta played by the statuesque Brenda Braxton also serves as a contemporary guide who ushers us through events in Egypt beginning in October 38 B.C.
As played by Mr. Cuccioli, Julius Caesar is a slightly befuddled old fellow lacking dignity and authority. Mr. Cuccioli, who I have seen mostly as an excellent musical theater actor, gradually grows into Caesar’s character as the play proceeds, suggesting the incisive, realistic, calculating ruler of the world who Shaw created in his own image and likeness. Ms. Lim is a feline and foxy Cleopatra, but not tough enough. Shaw made her innocent and romantic, but gave her claws and had Caesar teach her to use them. Though Shaw, who for all his bluster, never did create Cleopatra into a completely convincing woman of the world and never instructed her on the political facts that every ruler needs to know.
To suit Shaw’s purposes, which were moral, “Caesar and Cleopatra” violates the truth. The Cleopatra of history was a few years older, and a lot less innocent when Julius Caesar first met her. Before he left Egypt, she had become the mother of his son Caesarion.
Surprisingly the play even in this mini version is entertaining on any level, for the shrewd Shaw used all the theatrical tricks to please a popular audience. The Gingold Group employs all the artifices effectively, so that what the playgoer sees is entertaining and sometimes even stirring. Cleopatra is carried away in a rug to see Caesar at the proper time and his men deposit her at the Roman leader’s feet.
The sets by Brian Prather are elementary, planks of raw lumber, and the opening scene in which Cleopatra hides in the paws of a vast sphinx to surprise the unsuspecting Caesar doesn’t even exist. The costumes are all white, by Tracy Christensen, period royal wear for the men, while Ftatateeta and Cleopatra wear white modern clothes that make Cleopatra and her servant look totally out of today’s fashion era.
Caesar was one of Shaw’s supermen. The Irish author took the Roman General off the pedestals, stripped him of grandeur, and even hair. His Caesar wears a laurel crown, not as a sign of rank but to cover up his baldness. He is also informal. The great Caesar still escapes leaping from the causeway wall into the harbor of Alexandria. He never struts, though he tries to makes Cleopatra walk like a royal queen. You are reminded of Shaw’s 1914 play and 1938 Oscar-winning movie“Pygmalion” (later the musical “My Fair Lady”), and echos the relationship that exists between Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle. This Caesar cannot pronounce the name Fatateeta who, as the play progresses, she gets more ferocious. Caesar refers to the frightening women as “Teetatota.”
In Act II Caesar is cool and alert in the play’s late crises. When his safety is threatened by Egyptians, strong and contemptuous when they offer him the head of his enemy Pompey, frequent and persuasive when he denounces Cleopatra for having her puppet enemy Pothinus, murdered.
Mr. Cuccioli rises to these occasions, although he sometimes lacks a sense of command of Caesar’s passions, and also of Shaw’s language which he speaks pleasantly but often without the ironic bite which is essential in any of Shaw’s work.
Yet somehow this cast of seven and Mr. Staller leads us through this miniature look at Caesar and Cleopatra’s love affair which Shaw once described it as “looking through the historic keyhole of humanity.”
Caesar & Cleopatra ***
Gingold Theatrical Group
410 West 42nd Street between 9th and Dyer Avenues.
The performance will run 2 hours 30 minutes, including intermission.
For Tickets Telecharge.com, 212-239-6200, or in person at the Theatre Row Box Office.
Photography: Carol Rosegg