May 2, 2007

Caesar and Cleopatra Review

Theater: Caesar And Cleopatra
Playwright: George Bernard Shaw
At: ShawChicago at the Cultural Center,
77 E. Randolph
Runs through: May 7
Phone: 312-742-8497; $15

Something about the Middle East-perhaps the vast expanses of desert contrasted with the forested clutter of their own regions-seems to spur European artists to grandiose projects. The scenic design for George Bernard Shaw's 1898 historical extravanganza includes a sphinx large enough to seat two; a busy seaport quay and lighthouse surrounded by water suitable for diving; and two palaces equipped with hordes of servants and soldiers. But budgetary concerns are not entirely responsible for the scarcity of Caesar and Cleopatras done in full production. Shaw's observations, however incisive, are inextricably linked to the facts as we know them. The author may have incorporated real-life personalities into his fiction before-General Burgoyne in The Devil's Disciple, to name one-but the meeting of east and west, as embodied in the training of the adolescent queen by the avuncular Roman emperor, was accompanied by mass destruction-the torching of the library at Alexandria, not to mention several armies clashing in bloody battle. Fortunately, chamber readings rely solely on the participants' vocal agility and the audience's imaginations to supply visual ambience. Oh, Tony Dobrowolski might wear a laurel wreath and Sienna Harris a serpent crown in keeping with specific references to such in the text, but one of the delights of ShawChicago's performances is the clever way that physical actions are adapted to stationary players. ( For example, when the teenage Cleopatra is to squabble with her little brother, her scorn is expressed, not in rough-housing, but a derisive Bronx cheer. ) Under Robert Scogin's brisk direction, the results make for dramatic action that gallops along with robust exhilaration, slowing to a trot only in the more solemn second act. Playgoers of scholarly bent will detect a sly reference to Aesthetic Movement-champion Oscar Wilde when Apollodorus the Sicilian declares his motto to be "art for art's sake," and everyone enjoy a chuckle over zingers like "When a stupid man is doing something he is ashamed of, he always declares that it is his duty." But what resonates long after Shaw's aphorisms fade from memory is the irony as the avuncular Caesar bids goodbye to a willful Cleopatra, saying "I do not think we shall meet again." We know what awaits him at the forum in Rome, and the mischief in store when Marc Antony arrives in Egypt to assist the colonial monarch in her reign, and our knowledge lends poignancy to the final leave-taking of two world powers undone by cynical times.

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