Monday, August 18, 2008

Miss Caesar At Your Own Peril!

Richard Ouzounian (the Toronto Star) gives Caesar and Cleopatra 4 out of 4 stars:

"If you've been waiting for a perfect combination of high art and high entertainment this summer, then wait no longer.

"The production of Caesar and Cleopatra that opened at the Festival Theatre last night is a superb example of what our festivals can do at their best.

"It's a big, bold, beautiful, bounteous piece of crowd-pleasing theatre, filled with laughter and excitement, but also capable of provoking some serious thought as well.

"Shaw's wonderful story of how the aging Julius Caesar encountered the teenybopper Cleopatra when he invaded Egypt, and they wound up teaching each other a lot about the ways of the world, is given full measure here by director Des McAnuff.

"This may only be the third show he has ever directed on the festival stage, but he handles it like the most skilled of veterans, creating striking pictures that take your breath away, while keeping the space alive with the constant pulse of actors in motion.

"From the very first moment, when the statue of an Egyptian god proves to be something different that what we thought, McAnuff grabs our imagination and never lets go.

"Robert Brill's set is a series of boldly iconic Egyptian images that are capable of constantly fascinating reconfiguration. And Paul Tazewell's costumes splash the stage with welcome colour and help McAnuff create the stunning images he keeps dazzling us with.

"But although this Caesar and Cleopatra is visually splendid, it's so much more than that.

"I know you're supposed to save the best for last, but Christopher Plummer is such an essential part of this production's success that he must be mentioned first.

"In the hands of this master, Shaw suddenly seems like one of the wittiest playwrights alive and the theatre rocks with laughter as the Sahara-dry Plummer flicks line after line off with seeming aplomb, only to have them reap gigantic returns of hilarity.

"He's sweetly touching as the old man holding on to the shreds of his 'middle age,' cringing as Cleopatra mocks his baldness, then preening at every compliment she deigns to give him.

"But in an instant, he can turn into the imperious warrior, whose very glance could freeze the Nile as he shows his pupil Cleopatra that war is perhaps the most dangerous of all sports.

"Watch Plummer in the deep manly friendship he shares with his 'shield,' the gruff military man Rufio, or watch him as he plays a game of intellectual give-and-take with his trusted secretary Britannus.

"He knows that every character, every person needs or wants something different from Caesar and he's willing to provide it.

"This once-in-a-lifetime performance contains all these things and more. It's also mischievously insouciant, capriciously flamboyant and unexpectedly resonant.

"Death is in the wings for Caesar throughout this play and although he jokes about it with a steely bravura, you know that it chills him deep inside.

"This role is proof that Plummer remains the finest classical actor of our times and the fact that he is 78 years old is just icing on the cake.

"You'd need no other reason than Plummer's virtuoso turn as Caesar and McAnuff's splendid production to head to Stratford immediately, but there are many other virtues in the cast.

"Nikki M. James as Cleopatra is far, far better here than she was in her opening week performance as Juliet.

"The cadences of Shaw's prose suit her better than Shakespeare's verse and she seems much more at home as this frightened kitten who turns into a sharp-clawed cat.

"One would expect Peter Donaldson to be brilliant as Rufio and indeed, he is.

"The straight-talking man whose supposed simplicity hides a world of complex emotions isn't an easy character to play, but Donaldson greets him like an old friend and brings him to vibrant life.

"Diane D'Aquila has a field day as the domineering nurse Ftatateeta, spitting out the correct pronunciation of her name to any who mangle it and flashing her eyes with distrust of the world in general. She's very, very amusing.

"Equally droll is Steven Sutcliffe as the uptight 'English' secretary Brittanus, playing him with just the right lightness of touch, not making him too campy or doltish.

"And then there's some added weight provided by the Pothinus of Timothy D. Stickney and the Achillas of Roy Lewis.

"At the other end, Paul Dunn is deliciously childish as the young prince Ptolemy, channelling all the worst qualities of Stewie from Family Guy.

"But although Caesar and Cleopatra is filled to the brim with enjoyable moments, it has more serious matters on its mind as well.

"When Plummer's Caesar bitterly comments on 'Rome, that has achieved greatness only to learn how greatness destroys nations of men who are not great,' you can almost see the spectre of the Bush cabinet that invaded Iraq hovering in the background.

"And by the time he tells us that 'to the end of history, murder shall breed murder, always in the name of right and honour and peace, until the gods are tired of blood and create a race that can understand,' you will pause and think of how little the world has changed since those words were written 100 years ago.

"This is one you miss at your own peril."

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