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|A CurtainUp Review
Caesar and Cleopatra
by Barbara K. Mehlman
A Backgrounder on Shaw's Life and Career with links to other Shaw plays we've reviewed
Caesar and Cleopatra, like all of George Bernard Shaw's plays, is about many things. It is about an aging warrior's quest for victory. It is about an older man and a younger woman. It is about power and the abuse of power. It is also very much about the Irish Shaw's delight at taking potshots at England.
But most of all it's about the bad behavior of the English, both at home and abroad. The result is a scathing indictment of English imperialism, constructed as a parable in which the old Rome and the new (the Republic and the Empire) mirror the imperialistic English mission to ensure that the sun never sets on the British empire.
In the lengthy prologue by, the Egyptian god Ra (Harris Berlinsky) alternately scolds and advises, ridicules and disdains his audience of Englishmen. He points out the parallels between their England and ancient Rome. The gods smiled on and protected young Rome only to see its leaders become greedy robbers of the poor and slaughterers of the weak. As Ra concludes his lesson about history repeating itself by exhorting the audience to listen to a great man speak Caesar (Craig Smith) enters.
The Caesar (Craig Smith) in this 1898 revival is a real human being; sensitive about his baldness, his wrinkles, and his age. He is nevertheless intent on the job he knows he must do -- to subjugate the Egyptians, conquer his enemies and rule this empire. As he establishes the young Cleopatra (Elise Stone) on the throne of Egypt, he also teaches her to be both woman and ruler.
The play is filled with all the witty dialogue we expect from Shaw even as it delivers his passionately argued message. The prologue with its direct exposition of that message has unfortunately been so poorly directed by Robert Hupp that its impact is significantly undermined. The fact that Harris Berlinsky is too even-toned as the powerful Ra doesn't help matters. He has a strong voice his anger isn't passionate enough, his derisiveness not sneering enough and his wit not funny enough.
Elise Stone's Cleopatra also disappoints. She rushes past some wonderfully amusing lines. This is particularly evident in the scene when Caesar comes upon her at the Sphinx and she tells him that her great-great grandmother's great-grandmother was a black kitten of the sacred white cat and that her hair is so wavy because the river Nile made her his seventh wife. I laughed out loud when I read this in the text before seeing the play, but it didn't elicit so much as a giggle from the audience.
The cast generally was underwhelming. They came across as if they were meeting Shaw for the first time giving a sensee of reading with feeling more than fully engaged acting. Having Tracey Atkins-- a slender and attractive actress of average height-- play Cleopatra's nursemaid Ftatateeta is a case of egregious miscasting. Shaw writes that Ftatateeta is "a huge grim wo man, her face covered with a network of tiny wrinkles, and her eyes old, large, and wise; sinewy handed, very tall, very strong; with the mouth of a bloodhound and the jaws of a bulldog." Given that Jean Cocteau is a repertory group with a permanent company of actors, it is likely that Atkins was the only female available who at least could approximate Ftatateeta's formidable personality and aura of authority. It might have been more effective to have the part played by a man in drag.
All this leaves Craig Smith as the evening's standout. His resonant, theatrical voice and classical bearing make him a most satisfying Caesar. Dressed in a Lord Nelson cum swashbuckler costume he cuts a dashing figure. Most importantly he understands Shaw' s humor, whether lamenting his age or having fun with Ftatateeta's name. The world-weariness, the fraying at the edges, and the desire to soldier on despite a few aches and pains -- it's all evident in Smith's energetic and knowing portrayal of the aging leader.
The minimalist set of small Egyptian stage props and black boxes with red swashes adequately represent two palaces, a Sphinx, a harbor, a beach and a lighthouse. All in all, this is a reasonably good production, but a theater goer would do well to read the text first before attending a performance.