Last week a friend of mine posted a photo on social media of his ridiculous view of the Gingold Theatrical Group’s presentation of Bernard Shaw’s Caesar & Cleopatra at Theatre Row; he was sitting behind a young man well over six feet tall, with a long neck, wide ears, and a topknot that added another six inches, blocking nearly two-thirds of the stage. My friend wasn’t missing much.
Written in 1898, Caesar and Cleopatra imagines a fictional meeting between Roman ruler Julius Caesar (Robert Cuccioli) and Egyptian queen Cleopatra (Teresa Avia Lim). Thirty years Cleopatra’s senior and far more versed in the ways of the world, Caesar is like Professor Higgins to her Eliza Doolittle. In fact, the play emerged out of an early draft of what would become Pygmalion. Caesar has arrived in Egypt ahead of his troops and at first does not believe that the young, whiny woman is who she claims to be; she doesn’t realize who he is as well. “Caesar’ll know that I’m a queen when he sees my crown and robes!” she declares. He responds, “He will know Cleopatra by her pride, her courage, her majesty, and her beauty.”
But soon he is teaching her how to be a leader while she battles for control of Egypt against her brother, King Ptolemy, a puppet manipulated by his regent, Pothinus (Rajesh Bose). Caesar is joined by his humorless secretary, Britannus (Jonathan Hadley), and forthright military aide, Rufio (Jeff Applegate), while Cleopatra is nearly always accompanied by her mystical, protective nurse, Ftatateeta (Brenda Braxton). Later the dashing Apollodorus the Sicilian (Dan Domingues) devotes himself to her, but you’re unlikely to care by then.
Last year, Gingold turned the Lion Theatre into a London air-raid shelter during the Blitz for its scattershot version of Heartbreak House. The troupe is now back in the same space, renamed Theatre One after a renovation of Theatre Row, but they end up with the same unfortunate result. (Perhaps that specific room is doomed; I can’t remember the last time I saw something I liked in what was the Lion.) Director David Staller has done a deep dig into the history of the play, incorporating elements from letters, production notes, Shaw’s original handwritten manuscript, an early draft of the 1945 screenplay, and other sources, and perhaps that’s part of the problem; the show has no pace or rhythm. Brian Prather’s set is supposed to be an excavation site but looks more like unfinished scaffolding with plastic sheeting. It’s almost as if Staller, who has directed all of Shaw’s works, knows the play so well, and wanted to include so many unique touches, that he lost sight of the big picture. Cuccioli, as a smooth-talking superhero Caesar, and Lim, as a #metoo-era Cleopatra, never develop the necessary chemistry in choice parts previously played onstage and -screen by such pairs as Lionel Atwill and Helen Hayes, Cedric Hardwicke and Lilli Palmer, Hardwicke and Claire Bloom, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Claude Rains and Leigh, Alec Guinness and Geneviève Bujold, Rex Harrison and Elizabeth Ashley, and Christopher Plummer and Nikki M. James. “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history,” Caesar says at one point. He’s more right about that than he realizes. If only “veni” and no “vidi”: Where was that tall guy with the topknot to block my view?