Julius Caesar’s best qualities – lauded, in the Shakespeare play that bears his name, by Marc Antony – apparently made an impression on a later playwright, too: George Bernard Shaw. The Caesar of Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra proves patient, war weary, bemused (rather than enraged) by the foolishness of mankind, and merciful insofar as it aligns with his stratagems. This is the world leader who, while on a stroll near the Sphinx, meets a capricious 16-year-old who just so happens to be the Queen of Egypt. Quick as you can say `enry `iggins, the ruler of Rome takes the sprite under his wing. His goal is to instill in her the wisdom and regal bearing befitting a leader. Since she’s barely more than a child, her goal is to win him – that is, until he mentions a younger, stronger fellow by the aforementioned name of Marc Antony.
That’s a story for another play. This one, penned in 1898 (14 years before Pygmalion), concerns Cleopatra budding into a woman – one who can make calculated, and even bloody, political decisions. By the time Caesar returns to Rome months later, the student has progressed sufficiently to wave farewell to her avuncular mentor and assume the burdens of governance.
Or at least that seems to be the thematic arc. But when Caesar first meets the teen queen, she tells him she’ll one day kill her own brother for usurping her throne. As such, her later directive to dispatch the double-dealing captive Pothinus, which should be a turning point for her character, doesn’t feel like a significant change in her nature. If anything, the act simply reminds us of her impetuousness.
This production, staged by David Staller for Gingold Theater Group in off-Broadway’s Theater Row Theater, glides over that conundrum and also treads lightly on a more contemporary issue. While the physical maturation of Cleopatra from “a silly little girl” (Caesar’s words) into a poised beauty is clearly rendered through Tracy Christensen’s costumes and Teresa Avia Lim’s performance, the queen’s relationship with Caesar (the ingratiating and effortlessly noble Robert Cuccioli) could hardly be more chaste. Perhaps this is not the era to depict simmering passion between powerful men and underage girls, but having Caesar be unaffected by her charms and Cleopatra be more puckish than smitten does lower the dramatic stakes.
In fact, this stagingsuffers from a kids-playing-dress-up quality, some of that due to the set being not an exotic sandscape but a room of boarded-up archaeological artifacts. The costumes, too, while appealing in their bright whites and golds, come off as an unsettled mix of ancient and modern. We never believe there’s an ocean into which Caesar and his compatriots dive, nor do we sense a real threat of mobs and impending armies beyond the castle walls. It’s also disconcerting that in the interest of streamlining the text, Ftatateeta (the imperious Brenda Braxton), Cleopatra’s nurse, who commits the play’s most unsavory deed, breaks the fourth wall to become our convivial narrator.
Still, this is a comedy, one might even say a comedy of manners (which Caesar has in spades), so a feeling of everyone play-acting isn’t ruinous. In fact, the production is quick and lively – not adjectives that leap to mind when encountering a G.B. Shaw play – so while scholars might come to bury this Caesar, casual theatergoers will find some reasons to praise it.