Caesar and Cleopatra
nytheatre.com review by Heather Lee Rogers
January 17, 2009
I loved this play.
Resonance Ensemble has brought to life a very graceful production of Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra. And I just loved watching it. Eric Overmyer is credited with the adaptation and I did not know what to expect coming to this from the bold, raw lyricism he used in Native Speech which Boomerang Theatre Company produced last December. But Caesar and Cleopatra is Shaw's story told in Shaw's words with only a little cutting by Overmyer. This was wisely done. I also commend Resonance for not insulting its audience by staging the story in a shopping mall and making Caesar an internet tycoon or some other nonsense to bring an old play "up to date." Instead, this is the story of the Roman conqueror Julius Caesar on his Egyptian expedition, spears and Sphinx included. The statesmen are in robes and the warriors sport short skirts just as you'd expect. The result is an uncluttered story in which ideas of government are explored with great humanity, humor, and intelligence.
If you are looking for a lurid seduction story, you may be disappointed. In this version, an avuncular Caesar appoints himself the adoring mentor to a wild "kitten" of a teenage Cleopatra whom he finds hiding for fear that the coming Romans will eat her. He then takes her under his wing (deftly taking control of her kingdom while doing so) and trains her that an effective ruler is brave and just. He also teaches her, much to her surprise, that running a kingdom requires a lot of hard work. The soldiers tell us the Egyptians are descended from the gods, but their unruly Queen is descended from the Nile River itself. Under Caesar's attention we see Cleopatra (played nicely by Wrenn Schmidt) transform from an easily spooked erratic girl into a woman who truly can control both her keepers and her kingdom alike. But she never gets completely tamed, her transformation is more complex than that. Even more complex is that although the two are wholly devoted to each other, it is a relationship of friendship, admiration, and tutelage. There is strong (and interesting) attraction between them but in this version of the story it never leads to physical romance.
So no steamy sex, no inventive "concept," what's to love for two and a half hours? Great, timeless ideas delivered simply by great actors. Shaw's dialogue, chock full of mind-spinners, flows naturally and delivers many very funny and touching moments. There are many actors engaged in this production to cover the multitude of roles both large and small. But no small actors cross this stage. Here, beautifully, is a production in which every character and every scene is loved and directed with careful attention and precision by Kent Paul. Chris Cesaro portrays Caesar with utter sincerity. I believed and enjoyed every minute of his performance. His Caesar is a man respected more for his intelligence and judgment than for the might of his army. He teaches Cleopatra (and everyone else) that treating foes with mercy and respect is not only the decent thing to do but generally the most strategic and economic policy to boot. Dramatically, it provides a fine contrast to Cleopatra and the other fiery characters in the play who brandish age-old torches of revenge, face-saving-honor, and rule by violent intimidation. It is with great sadness and frustration that Caesar says "And so to the end of history, murder shall breed murder, always in the name of right and honor and peace until the gods are tired of blood and create a race that can understand."
I asked myself as I left the theater why this play was so engaging. Where was the risk? Resonance took the greatest risk you can take with classical drama and successfully made it work: They had great actors perform classic words and ideas with simple grace. The result is beautiful, moving, and very timely theater.