Caesar and Cleopatra
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Theater review by Regina Robbins
Can George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, an old play about even older events, still make audiences laugh and think in the 21st century? Its plot centers on the relationship between an aging man and the teenage girl he “mentors,” and it unapologetically insists that the dissemination of classical culture and philosophy throughout the Roman Empire was, on balance, a good thing for the conquered. One scene features a prisoner of war declaring, “Only as Caesar’s slave have I found real freedom,” which is roughly the opposite of woke. But Shaw—who was, for the record, a fervent believer in socialism, vegetarianism and equal rights for women—had no use for moral or political absolutism; every radical idea in Caesar and Cleopatra is tempered by a profound cynicism about human nature. The friction produced is reliably funny and frequently poignant.
In Shaw’s conception, Cleopatra (Teresa Avia Lim) is not the cunning seductress of legend but a credulous, high-spirited teenager with no parents, cared for and controlled—barely—by a stern nursemaid called Ftatateeta (Brenda Braxton). Caesar (Robert Cuccioli) finds her hiding from her enemies, including her own younger brother, in the Syrian desert; at first, he doesn’t believe her when she tells him she really is the queen of Egypt. But once he’s convinced, he sees great potential in the royal teen and, like a proto–Henry Higgins, sets out to prepare her to assume the throne. Cleopatra isn’t sure what exactly she wants from the great Roman: a father? A teacher? A lover? Though charmed by the winsome girl, Caesar isn’t looking for romance, but for a young, brilliant leader—preferably female—to carry on the work of civilization after he’s gone. Lim and Cuccioli are both excellent, and their affectionate yet competitive chemistry is thoroughly delightful; that their lives are destined to end in violence injects a note of inescapable pathos into the generally comical proceedings.
Director David Staller has abridged and adapted Shaw’s text to be performed by a cast of seven (plus one puppet). Instead of a small-scale evocation of the grandeur of ancient Alexandria, the set is a wooden platform of the kind you might see at an archeological site, and the costumes are a clever mix of contemporary street clothes with classical embellishments. This all serves as a reminder that the play is a reflection of its own time, not that of its subjects. Now it becomes a reflection of ours: When Caesar promises Cleopatra to stay by her side “until you can stand as a woman with a ferocity that defies all that is merely a man,” you almost expect him to open his toga and reveal a t-shirt that says THE FUTURE IS FEMALE.
Theatre Row (Off Broadway). By George Bernard Shaw. Directed by David Staller. With Robert Cuccioli, Teresa Avia Lim. Running time: 2hrs. One intermission.