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A CurtainUp Review
Caesar, to Cleopatra
That Cleopatra also had a relationship with Julius Caesar, one which might have had as many implications as her more famous one, is usually forgotten. But George Bernard Shaw did not forget it, and in his play Caesar and Cleopatra he explodes both the myth that Cleopatra was always and only influenced by Antony and, in some ways more surprisingly, the conceit that she was always a mature woman. As the Resonance Ensemble's new production definitively demonstrates, Cleopatra was once a young girl—one who had to grow up very quickly.
Shaw's play follows the arrival of Caesar to Egypt in search of overdue tribute—but instead of a resistant populace united behind one ruler, what he instead finds is a highly chaotic and divided political situation, with some supporting the young Ptolemy, heavily influenced and controlled by his guardian Pothinus, and others supporting his older sister Cleopatra, in turn influenced and controlled by her nurse Ftatateeta. Caesar's discovery of the young Cleopatra leads to a growing relationship with her, one characterized more by political instruction than physical intimacy. . .and by the time the play ends, both Cleopatra and Caesar have grown from their experience as much as the bonds between Egypt and Rome.
Much of Shaw's message, of course, was directed at an audience which also fancied itself as part of an empire in some disarray. . .and in that sense, there's a lot of modern resonance with this work, which makes the Resonance Ensemble's involvement with this project logical. As usual, they are running this play in repertory with a modern play, 23 Knives, (see link to Paulanne Simmons' review of that play below) and director Kent Paul is at pains to hold up his end of the bargain by being loyal to the feel of Shaw's work. Accordingly, the company plays this straight up, and from the high quality set (designed by Sarah Brown) to the costumes (especially Cleopatra's stunning dress, rendered by costume designer Michelle Eden Humphrey) it does an excellent job in communicating what Shaw would have intended for his Egypt. Paul's direction appropriately emphasizes Shaw's usual wit and linguistic skill, and if it doesn't take any particularly bold leaps, it doesn't make major mistakes either.
In the end, though, much of the success of this production stems from the quality of the acting, which is with one exception highly professional. Rafael Jordan is excellent as Apollodorus, an artist who "serves only the cause of beauty," and Brian Tom O' Connor is similarly good as Pothinus. Ftatateeta (whose name is perpetually mispronounced by the Roman soldiers, perhaps resonating with an Irish Shaw used to hearing the names from his native Ireland similarly mispronounced by the British) is also well rendered (if sometimes a bit over the top) by Geraldine Librandi. It's unfortunate that the weakest actor ends up with a critical role: Joe MacDougall doesn't seem to know how to represent a soldier without John Wayne-esque gaps in his delivery, and his Rufio (who gets a lot of stage time) suffers badly as a result. Happily, the two main characters do not disappoint. Chris Ceraso is top notch as Caesar, perfectly mixing his cool stoicism with fatherly compassion and decisive leadership: it's hard to imagine Caesar not behaving exactly as Ceraso makes him. And Wrenn Schmidt is absolutely luminous as Cleopatra, girlishly sulking at times, alluring at others, and always compelling. The chemistry between the two is obvious, and is a big part of what makes the play work.
The end result is a solid, highly professional production of a good play, filled with wit and wisdom. I'm not sure if the Romans of Caesar's time were quite as British-genteel and civilized as Shaw made them, nor if Cleopatra was always quite this appealing even in her more devious moments. But the Resonance Ensemble's production makes a good argument in support of his vision—and even if it's not wholly accurate, many audience members departing the theater may find themselves preferring it to a more cynical reality.
To read Curtainup's take on 23 Knives, the modern play inspired by this one go here.
For more about George Bernard Shaw and links to other reviews of his plays, see Curtainup's George Bernard Shaw Backgrounder.