Over the course of his roughly five-decade career as a playwright, George Bernard Shaw pushed against the boundaries of contemporary thought and the conventions of drama. A pioneer who widened the scope of what could be mounted onstage, he survives—barely—in this age hard-put to tackle his large-scale plays featuring multiple characters who circle, flirt, debate, wound, and charm over and over and over again, with the whole as impervious to production costs as to modern audiences’ attention spans.
At New York City’s Off-Broadway venue, Theater Row, the Gingold Theatrical Group (GTG) offered a seminar in how to handle “G.B.S.,” as he liked to sign himself. Caesar and Cleopatra, which concluded its run a week ago, is itself less the story of an education of a young queen. Forget about the conqueror-and-seductress saga familiar from film and TV: the young Cleo we first see here is little better than a child, so any notion of sex between the two is—well, creepy.
I started reading Shaw in my tweens, and I fairly raced through his collected works. It took some time before I saw them performed, and I doubt I could now abide a literal translation of this material from page to stage.
Produced in 1898, Caesar and Cleopatra illustrates why: the original Prologue, featuring Cleopatra’s loyal but domineering nurse Ftatateeta, goes on for several pages with the character alone on stage. The playwright’s “alternate” first scene is only slightly better: slightly shorter, but with characters secondary to the main action.
In contrast, the GTG highlights Ftatateeta (embodied, in all her haughtiness and formidability, by the marvelous Brenda Braxton) as a kind of Greek chorus framing the action, but whisking playgoers far more quickly into the action. It was emblematic of what would follow: not a leisurely trip down the Nile, but a two-hour hurtle through invasion, civil unrest, assassinations, and a change of regime.
Shaw’s detailed instructions for elaborate sets and inclusion of common soldiers and aides may have inadvertently encouraged earlier productions to treat this as a costume drama rather than a comedy of ideas.
The GTG’s David Staller would have none of that. The director pruned spear carriers and landscape alike. (For instance, the Ptolemy of the original conception—a boy-king who rails against sister Cleopatra as he repeats the instructions of his eunuch adviser—becomes an amusing Charlie McCarthy-like dummy). In the end, Staller brought into sharper focus the Nobel Prize laureate’s concern with male-female relations, colonialism, war, and the proper use of power.
Never unafraid to claim that Shaw was superior to Shakespeare, the Victorian playwright was unafraid to revise the Bard’s strongman-in-the-making into a ruler who won men to his side by the judicious use of mercy as by force of arms. It’s a conceit, to be sure, but an object lesson he thought his countrymen could use as they puzzled over how to administer a worldwide empire.
Robert Cuccioli wore this rhetorical tunic lightly, exuding all the irony of a politician and man of the world who has seen it all and is now unillusioned by the spectacle that continues to pass before him. (“Taxes are the chief business of a conqueror of the world,” he tells the fuming Egyptians who meet with him.”) He was as amused by Cleopatra’s crush on his handsome young officer Mark Antony as he is exasperated by her thoughtless and violent abuses of her new-found power.
He was at his best teaching the girl not just the stagecraft of power (how to carry oneself, how to command), but also the philosophy behind it (why vengeance just sparks an endless cycle of dangerous recrimination).
As Cleopatra, Teresa Avia Lim masterfully executed the crucial character arc of the play: from a girl searching for her cat and terrified of Roman soldiers to a young woman who assiduously (if ambivalently) absorbed all Caesar’s lessons in governing.
Shaw is not performed with anything close to the regularity that he should be, so I jump on any production when I have a chance. I had not been previously aware of the GTG, whose programs include a Shaw New York annual festival and a related monthly reading series. I will have to catch their offerings in the future.
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