Before Pygmalion and its Covent Garden flower girl Eliza Doolittle, George Bernard Shaw penned Caesar and Cleopatra, another comedy of metamorphosis. After arriving in Egypt, Caesar (Robert Cuccioli) finds himself charmed by the headstrong, teenaged Cleopatra (Teresa Avia Lim) and decides to assist in her transformation into Queen of the Ptolemaic Kingdom. Despite plotting on all sides, not least from Cleopatra’s brother, Ptolemy, and his regent, Pothinus (Rajesh Bose), Caesar maintains a posture of detached amusement while Cleopatra claws her way into power. It is almost as if he has already arrived in Elysium and is watching the action from the safety of the afterlife.
The Gingold Theatrical Group’s new production of the play, helmed by the long-standing Shaw champion David Staller, is something of a mixed bag. Cuccioli is strong, his Caesar genial, relaxed, and equipped with a pair of perpetually laughing eyes. But he has no chemistry with Lim, who often sounds like she’s reciting rather than speaking her lines and whose transformation is utterly unconvincing. There are a few gestures toward pomp, but otherwise her speech, movements, and bearing all remain childish throughout. There is no sense, at the play’s closing, that this is the woman who will have the confidence to complain about actors who “boy” her “greatness” in Shakespeare.
Furthermore, Staller has made the bizarre choice of casting an Avenue Q-style puppet in the role of Ptolemy, perhaps the most ham-fisted attempt at literalizing a metaphor of power that I have ever seen. The stunt is lame and distracting and speaks to a larger messiness of intent here. So while the jokes occasionally land, there is no coherent vision, other than, I assume, a desire to mount this less-known Shaw. While not the worst motivation for a revival, it is hardly enough to sustain an entire production.
Caesar and Cleopatra runs through October 12th at Theatre Row. 410 W. 42nd Street New York, NY. 2 hours. One intermission.