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  • Title: Caesar and Cleopatra
  • Written by: Bernard Shaw
  • Director: Des McAnuff
  • Actors: Christopher Plummer, Nikki M. James

Christopher Plummer as Caesar and Nikki M. James as Cleopatra.David Hou/Stratford Shakespeare Festival

With a marquee star, spectacular, sparkling sets and costumes, and a pair of topless women in a sauna, director Des McAnuff doesn’t skimp on the razzle-dazzle with Caesar and Cleopatra.

But the production of Bernard Shaw’s 1898 play from the Broadway director and now Stratford Shakespeare Festival head honcho is also thoughtful, well-staged and finely acted. After McAnuff’s flashy but underwhelming Romeo and Juliet earlier this summer, this hilarious play leaves us less concerned that Canada’s largest theatre is in worthy hands.

Indeed, McAnuff promises to bring a welcome HBO sensibility to the festival, delivering sensational but adult entertainment.

With Caesar and Cleopatra, Shaw let his Shakespeare envy show by penning a parodic prequel to Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra.

The comedy tells us little about its two famous protagonists, however, and much more about what Shaw thought about Victorian mores and the British Empire.

Here, the invading Roman general is a classic Shavian contrarian dispensing uncommon wisdom to the shock of all around him. Intervening in the throne struggle between the childish Cleopatra and her younger brother Ptolemy, Caesar teaches the queen of Egypt how to rule like him.

Though most historians tell us Caesar had a child with Cleopatra, the most intimacy the asexual Shaw allows his pair of protagonists is a fatherly peck on the top of her head. This is decidedly not a romance.

Rather it is a first draft of (the far superior) Pygmalion, but with the obstinate older man teaching an impetuous, rough-around-the-edges younger woman how to conquer Phoenicians instead of phonetics.

Christopher Plummer, the big draw of this production, is well worth hailing as a mischievous Caesar. The charming actor has the audience in the palm of his hand from his opening monologue delivered to the Sphinx (beautifully designed by Robert Brill). With his wry smile and Friendly Giant haircut, Plummer wrings the laughs out of every quip, getting particular play out of Caesar’s self-deprecating remarks about his age and balding pate. At 78, the Canadian stage icon may need a body double to leap from the Pharos lighthouse (blink and you’ll miss the clever switch), but when he shifts from indulgent gabbing to imperious ordering you have no doubt of his ability to command an army.

Originally, the Tony-winning actress Anika Noni Rose was slated play Cleopatra, but when she pulled out to film a television series, in stepped Nikki M. James, an American actor who is also starring as Juliet at the festival.

After James got universally bad reviews in Romeo and Juliet, many predicted that she would be yanked, but McAnuff stuck to his guns.

McAnuff’s loyalty to his protégé has turned out to be based on more than stubbornness. The actress, who had previously performed mostly in musicals, has learned to project without straining her voice after a few months on the Festival Stage and is obviously more comfortable with this modern, comic text. Though still not the most modulated actor, her childlike voice and natural inclination toward a petulant tone works well for Shaw’s 16-year-old and condescendingly childish Cleopatra (five years younger than she actually was at the time).

The cream of the Stratford company fill in the gaps around Plummer and James. As Caesar’s ornery right-hand man, Peter Donaldson completes a hat trick of memorable supporting performances this season, while Diane D’Aquila is a stealthy scream as Cleopatra’s nurse, the vicious hissing Ftatateeta.

In smaller roles, Paul Dunn is a ridiculous sight as Cleopatra’s 10-year-old brother Ptolemy, Steven Sutcliffe is a fey Brittanus - a character Shaw uses to mock his own countrymen - and Ian Lake makes a strong, brief impression as a Roman sentinel.

Layered on top the mostly solid performances is the McAnuff flash. He has Cleopatra’s consorts (Michelle Monteith and Sophia Walker) take a steam bath onstage, their Ftatateetas fully on display, and he sticks in a marvellous, bloody throat-slitting.

McAnuff has cut the long-winded prologue spoken by Ra, but has an actor dressed as the hawk-headed God stand motionless as a statue as the audience enters in homage to it. (He’s cut the so-called “alternative to the prologue” as well, another excellent decision.) The production is full of these street performance-inspired human statues played by company members. McAnuff can apparently whip his troops into disciplined shape just as well as Caesar.

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