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REVIEW: PlayMakers Repertory Company: Caesar and Cleopatra Ends PRC’S 2004-05 Season on a Very, Very High Note Indeed

by Robert W. McDowell

PlayMakers Repertory Company ends its magnificent 2004-05 season on a very, very high note indeed, with an absolutely majestic production of Caesar and Cleopatra, Irish playwright, critic, and political activist George Bernard Shaw’s epic historical comedy about the fabled friendship between the middle-aged Roman conqueror of much Gaul, Britain, and Spain and the youthful Egyptian queen who would soon be more famous for her romantic assignations than for her statesmanship in negotiating what was best for Egypt from a succession of paramours.

PRC artistic director David Hammond, who just completed his 20 year with the company and will shortly embark on year-long sabbatical, cast Caesar and Cleopatra superbly down to the very tiniest part. Moreover, Hammond sublimely stages this masterpiece of Modern Drama, so that all the famed Shavian wit sparkles like the finest diamonds throughout the evening, which ended Saturday night with a standing ovation.

Shaw was more concerned with the ideas that they Romans and Egyptians bandy about than the battles they fought or the courtly intrigues that threatened the lives and reigns of the title characters. And David Hammond brilliantly bring Shaw’s succession of verbal duels to life, glorious life.

Broadway veteran Christopher Coucill is splendid as the mighty Caesar, unexpectedly open to new ideas and unfailingly magnanimous to friends and foes alike; and guest artist Charity Henson is charming as a kittenish Cleopatra, only a frightened 16 year old at the outset of Shaw’s version of the story. Nevertheless, Cleopatra is soon willing to claw her way to the top, even if it means beheading a brother or two.

But it is PlayMakers mainstays Kenneth P. Strong and Julie Fishell who steal the show. Strong’s campy impersonation of the imperious chief eunuch Pothinus, who openly seethes when Caesar deposes his master Ptolemy (Vince Eisenson) and puts the petulant Cleopatra on the Egyptian throne, and Fishell’s hilarious performance as Ftatateeta, the equally imperious chief nurse to Cleopatra and the power behind her mistress’ throne, are crackerjack characterizations. Despite their funny walks, Pothinus and Ftatateeta are two hellcats that no Egyptian or Roman, for that matter would want to meet in a dark alley.

The wonderfully witty ongoing conversation between Christopher Coucill and Charity Henson and the barbed badinage between Coucill and Henson and their fellow cast members is what makes Caesar and Cleopatra more than just another historical drama about a familiar chapter of ancient history. Gregory Northrop is suitably skeptical and gruff as Rufio, Caesar’s battle-hardened chief lieutenant; Jeffrey Blair Cornell is clever as Caesar’s erudite and surprisingly outspoken household slave Britannus; Adam Sheaffer is good as the soldier of fortune Lucius Septimus, who switches sides at a particularly propitious time for the beleaguered Caesar; and Jay Stratton cuts a fine figure as the handsome and affable merchant Apollodorus, a patrician wheeler-dealer who risks his life to amass a fortune by selling art to both sides of the burgeoning Roman-Egyptian conflict.

Forget about Rex Harrison and Elizabeth Taylor in the scandalously expensive and just plain scandalous 1963 motion-picture version of Cleopatra, Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra features much more compelling characters and delicious dialogue fit, well, fit for a king. The show’s stupendous set, with its head and paws of a Sphinx and its black back walls decorated with white hieroglyphics, and the vivid ancient Roman and Egyptian costumes both created by scenic and costume designer Bill Clarke, lighting designer Peter West skillful use of his lighting instruments to heighten the comic or dramatic mood of each scene, and the superb soundscape devised by sound designer M. Anthony Reimer all combine with director David Hammond and his stellar cast to make PlayMakers Repertory Company’s presentation of Caesar and Cleopatra one of the finest productions of this or any other Triangle theater season.

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents Caesar and Cleopatra Tuesday-Saturday, April 12-16, 19-23, and 26-30, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, April 17 and 24 and May 1, at 2 p.m. in the Paul Green Theater in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Center for Dramatic Art. $10-$32, except $40 opening-night gala April 9th. 919/962-PLAY (7529) or Note 1: An assisted-listening system and wheelchair seating are available for all performances. Note 2: There will be an “all access” performance April 15th, with audio description, sign-language interpretation, and Braille and large-print programs. PlayMakers Repertory Company: [inactive 8/07]. Internet Broadway Database: Internet Movie Database: George Bernard Shaw (Nobel Prize Laureate): BBC Four Audio Interviews with Shaw: Caesar and Cleopatra (Project Gutenberg eBook):

PREVIEW: PlayMakers Repertory Company: Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra Is A Delightful Historical Comedy
by Robert W. McDowell

PlayMakers Repertory Company will conclude its 2004-05 season with an all-star production of Caesar and Cleopatra, acerbic Irish playwright, critic, and left-wing political propagandist George Bernard Shaw’s delightful historical comedy, staged by PRC artistic director David Hammond, now completing his 20th season with the critically acclaimed regional theater based in the Center for Dramatic Art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Previews start April 6th in the Paul Green Theatre, and there will be a $40-per-person opening-night gala with post-play wine-and-heavy hors d’ouvres reception on April 9th. The show will run Tuesday-Sunday through May 1st.

“[Caesar and Cleopatra] was the second play that I saw when I was a child,” admits David Hammond. “I saw Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh do it on Broadway at [Billy Rose’s Ziegfeld Theatre in 1951-52]. (The first play I saw was Jean Arthur in Peter Pan the straight play, not the musical,” with Arthur playing Peter and Boris Karloff playing Captain Hook.)

(Vivien Leigh previously starred opposite Claude Rains in the 1945 British motion-picture version of Caesar and Cleopatra, directed by Gabriel Pascal and adapted for the silver screen by George Bernard Shaw [1856-1950].)

Hammond claims, “[Caesar and Cleopatra] is one of those plays that has always been a beacon of what the theater should be to me. I think the performances of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh would probably seem old fashioned and a little romanticized today, but they were expert in their time. Vivien Leigh, in particular, made a tremendous impression on me as a child. The vibrancy and life that she brought on the stage was everything that you want to have happen in the theater.”

The stellar cast for PlayMakers’ epic presentation of Caesar and Cleopatra includes guest actors Christopher Coucill as Caesar, Charity Henson as Cleopatra, Gregory Northrop as Rufio, and Jay Stratton as Apollodorus, plus PRC company members Jeffrey Blair Cornell as Britannus, Julie Fishell as Ftatateeta, and Kenneth P. Strong as Pothinus.

Coucill played General Harrison Howell in the recent Broadway revival of Cole Porter’s classic musical Kiss Me Kate, directed by Michael Blakemore. Henson made her professional stage debut last season in PlayMakers’ highly praised American premiere of Luminosity by British playwright Nick Stafford.

“Chris Coucill has done many Broadway shows and a lot of Shakespeare,” says David Hammond. “Charity Henson is one of my favorites. She’s just a joy and is doing great work. Greg Nordstop was in our production of A Prayer for Own Meany. He’s part of the family. Jay Stratton has auditioned for us many times. He’s always wonderful, and we’re thrilled to have him now. Ken Strong is going to be fabulous as the chief eunuch, Pothinus; Jeff Cornell is great as Britannus; and Julie Fishell will play Ftatateeta, mistress of the queen’s household and Cleopatra’s nurse.”

In addition to director David Hammond, the show’s production team includes set and costume designer Bill Clarke, lighting designer Peter West, and sound designer M. Anthony Reimer.

Hammond says the PRC production concept for the show is “sort of a Victorian dream of Egypt.” He adds, “The set is wonderfully Egyptian, but abstract. The costumes are delightfully witty.”

First performed in 1901, Caesar and Cleopatra is widely considered to be the first great drama by the award-winning author of Man and Superman (1905), Major Barbara (1905), Pygmalion (1913), and many other masterpieces of Modern Drama. George Bernard Shaw won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925.

The title characters of Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra drastically differ from the historical personages portrayed in Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatist William Shakespeare’s epic tragedies Julius Caesar (1599-1600) and Antony and Cleopatra (1606-07). Shaw’s Caesar is a seasoned soldier and statesman intent on promulgating the virtues of the Roman Republic to his Mediterranean conquests; Shakespeare’s Caesar is a would-be tyrant, consumed by ambition, who is assassinated before he can make himself king.

Shaw’s Cleopatra is a spoiled, childish 16-year-old girl who is more than willing to play Galatea to Caesar’s Pygmalion; Shakespeare’s Cleopatra is a wily 38-year-old femme fatale with a penchant for seducing powerful men to preserve her kingdom and her personal power.

(The historical Roman general and statesman Gaius Julius Caesar [c. 100-44 BC] met the historical Egyptian queen Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator [69-30 BC] when his armies invaded Egypt in 48 BC, when he was 52 and she was 21. They had one child, son Ptolemy XV Caesar [47-30 BC], whom the victorious future Roman emperor Augustus Caesar [nee Octavian, 63 BC-14 AD] had put to death after defeating Cleopatra and Marc Antony [c. 81-30 BC] at the Battle of Actium in 30 BC and forcing them to commit suicide rather than be captured and paraded through Rome as prizes of war.)

“[Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra] is more or less the correct story,” claims David Hammond, “with a few little adjustments. Caesar, having invaded Egypt, finds Cleopatra hiding from the invading army and decides to train her to be queen. He attempts to instill in her Roman ideas of government. She does grow into a queen, but on her own terms, not what he expected or hoped for. [This play] also includes the civil war in Alexandria and the famous episode of [Cleopatra] coming to [Caesar] wrapped in a carpet. It’s sort of Pygmalion or My Fair Lady in Egypt.”

Hammond adds, “There is a romance of a kind [in Caesar and Cleopatra], but not like Elizabeth Taylor.” (Screen siren Elizabeth Taylor played the sultry and scantily clad title character in the obscenely expensive 1963 U.S. motion-picture extravaganza Cleopatra, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, in which the ancient Egyptian sexpot had dangerous liaisons with both Rex Harrison as Caesar or Richard Burton as Marc Antony.)

Did recent far-fetched claims that Cleopatra had black-African features inspire Hammond to cast African-American actress Charity Henson in the role? No, says David Hammond. He claims, “It’s irrelevant. [PRC employs] color-blind casting, not color-conscious casting.”

Hammond adds, “Egypt is in Africa; but Cleopatra was 32 parts Greek, 27 parts Macedonian, and five parts Persian. (That’s the best scholarly guess based on her ancestry.) The script says that her skin is darker than Caesar’s, but there’s no statement made by casting an African-American actress. Charity Henson is just ideal for the part. I’m sure she’ll play Shakespeare’s Cleopatra in a few years. She’s a good actress.”

Staging Caesar and Cleopatra presents considerable creative challenges for Hammond and for his cast and creative team. “I don’t know that [I’d call them] challenges,” he replies. “There are multiple scenes with six or seven storylines going on at the same time, and six or seven character paths to follow. So, you cast well and you wind them up and you get the lights going and [the show] takes off. I don’t know if it’s a challenge; it’s a pleasure.”

Why does Hammond think Shaw conceived Caesar and Cleopatra as a historical comedy? “Because it laughs at [the human] condition,” says Hammond. “It looks at us with a forgiving but critical eye, and it finds us funny. That’s a comedy. It’s not satiric; it’s truly comic. Satiric would be to mock and undercut and make wise cracks.”

Hammond adds, “Caesar and Cleopatra is about a great nation (Rome) attempting to reshape the world and what that struggle entails and what’s funny about it. It’s also about the conflict between a nation (Rome) that considers itself civilized and a nation (Egypt) that Rome considers to be barbaric.”

David Hammond says, Caesar and Cleopatra is a “brilliantly written,” timeless turn-of-the-century comedy. He says, “It’s a lovely, lively, delicious play. It has an eternal truth, and a truth that we need to remind ourselves of today: That the world never changes and we’re always going through the same struggles in different forms, that we can’t despair, and that our survival may ultimately depend upon having a sense of humor, a sense of proportion about ourselves and our place in the world.

“At one point,” Hammond notes, “Caesar says something to the effect that you can build a great nation, but you can’t maintain greatness unless that nation is made up of great men. So, [Caesar and Cleopatra] seems to me to be a very healing and rejuvenating play for today’s audience; and it’s over 100 years old, which is just a miracle.”

Note: There will be two $5-per-student Educational Matinees at 10:30 a.m. April 13 and 28 for middle and high school students. (These matinees are FREE for teachers and chaperones, but each group must bring one teacher or chaperone for every 15 students.) For reservations, telephone PlayMakers Director of Education and Outreach David Lorenc at 919/962-2491.

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents Caesar and Cleopatra Wednesday-Saturday, April 6-9, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, April 10, at 2 p.m.; Tuesday-Saturday, April 12-16, 19-23, and 26-30, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, April 17 and 24 and May 1, at 2 p.m. in the Paul Green Theater in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Center for Dramatic Art. $10-$32, except $40 opening-night gala April 9th. 919/962-PLAY (7529) or Note 1: An assisted-listening system and wheelchair seating are available for all performances. Note 2: There will be an “all access” performance April 15th, with audio description, sign-language interpretation, and Braille and large-print programs. PlayMakers Repertory Company: [inactive 8/07]. Internet Broadway Database: Internet Movie Database: George Bernard Shaw (Nobel Prize Laureate): BBC Four Audio Interviews with Shaw: Caesar and Cleopatra (Project Gutenberg eBook):



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