STAGE REVIEW : Historical Hilarity in 'Caesar and Cleopatra' : The Laguna Playhouse kicks off its 71st season with George Bernard Shaw's comedy.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Though George Bernard Shaw did not intend "Caesar and Cleopatra" to be played as a historical comedy bordering on a Hollywood sendup, he certainly knew how to write a running gag worthy of the Borscht Belt.

The gag has to do with Caesar's inability to pronounce the name of Cleopatra's royal nurse, Ftatateeta, a tongue twister not unsuited to her nature. Shaw has Caesar calling her everything from Totateeta to Tfatafeeta and--in an insult reflecting both his lingual exasperation and the wish to deflate her sinister self-importance--just plain Tota.

At the Moulton Theatre, where "Caesar and Cleopatra" opened the Laguna Playhouse's 71st season over the weekend, Douglas Rowe, as Caesar, certainly knows how to milk that gag. In the finest Jack Benny tradition, Rowe commands the royal nurse to do his bidding with silly names like Tototitty, Tittytata and--in the most cutting deadpan of all--Toto, an apt irony refering to Dorothy's innocent little dog in "The Wizard of Oz."

Shaw might have cringed at the liberties taken with his text, but that is not the point. The point is that this lavishly mounted, warmly lit, handsomely costumed Laguna production treats the play from beginning to end with a certain lightness of touch that can be suggestively illuminating. The sometimes-very-funny results have a salubrious effect perhaps not as distant from Shaw's original intent as might be presumed.

After all, "Caesar and Cleopatra" was meant to bring the title characters back to earth from the pretentious heights of what Shaw called Sardoodledom and Bardolatry, to which they'd been elevated by a 19th-Century theatrical tradition that he abhored. Both Caesar and Cleopatra land on the Moulton stage without benefit of parachutes, but also without archaic conceits that might have crippled the revival of a 91-year-old play.

The 19th-Century tradition Shaw sought to demolish--now long since forgotten, in great part because of his success--had thrived on pomp and ceremony fueled by the artificial melodramas of fashionable playwrights such as Victorien Sardou--who drew overblown stage portraits of historical figures from Napoleon to Cleopatra--and by an abundance of worshipful Shakespearean pageants, including such favorites as "Julius Caesar" and "Antony and Cleopatra."

As an antidote, Shaw chose to write history as comedy. He exalted a middle-aged, common-sense Caesar whose greatness resides in pragmatic experience modified, but not stymied, by moral compunctions. He is a man of honor, nonetheless, who confounds even his closest aides with ideas of clemency. The greatest of Shaw's early dramatic portraits, this Caesar is an incipient "superman" representing intellectual achievement translated into effective action.

As for Cleopatra, she is depicted as a gullible teen-ager whose bid for the Egyptian throne is transformed from petulant wish to subtler calculation under Caesar's tutelage. Not that Caesar ever manages to instill in her any of his moral principles. Nor does he ever come to trust her. In Shaw's scheme of things, even an incomplete version of the "new woman" must be given wide berth by a man who epitomizes the height of human achievement.

But Caesar does find Cleopatra useful. And amusing. Though she frequently wounds his masculine vanity with another of the play's running jokes--this one about Caesar's middle-aged decrepitude--he winks toward future history like an indulgent father and promises to send Mark Antony to Egypt to satisfy her youthful craving for a Roman general with muscles.

The play eschews the slightest hint of a romantic relationship between Caesar and Cleopatra, a point that Shaw insisted upon. Yet if any single moment can be said to encapsulate the comic concept of this production, it is the instant when they bid each other farewell with a passionate kiss that leaves Caesar weak-kneed and wobbly.

Rowe, who has chosen to play Caesar with so little inflection as to seem colorless most of the time, here tosses off the priceless gesture of a man conked over the head. You can almost see the stars. In fact, it makes you wish the rest of Rowe's down-to-earth performance had an injection of the very sort of heightened theatricality that he apparently has gone out of his way to avoid.

Lillian Helm plays Cleopatra with a lusty simplicity. As for the rest of the large cast, they acquit themselves nicely. The best supporting performance is turned in by David William Carr, who gives a very natural account of Apollodorus. Others worth noting are Jerry Newman's Pothinus, Josephine Black's Ftatateeta, John Huntington's Britannus, Bryan Burnes' Rufio and Anthony Ramirez's Lucius Achillas.

Meanwhile, the physical production meets the playhouse's usually high standard. Robert L. Smith has devised a lavish Egyptian setting that simulates rough-hewn marble and bathes it in lambent lighting. Karen J. Weller's costumes are an equivalent eyeful. And David Edwards' sound design is better than usual.

'CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA'

A Laguna Playhouse production. Written by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Marthella Randall. With Douglas Rowe, Lillian Helm, Josephine Black, Torey Carrick, Jerry Newman, Walter Daly, Anthony Ramirez, Bryan Burnes, John Huntington, David William Carr, Doina Roman, Kirsten Anderson, Brendon G. Newman, Gordon Marhoefer, Darryl Edward Hope, Kedric L. Francis and Kevin Toft. Set and lighting by Robert L. Smith. Costumes by Karen J. Weller. Sound by David Edwards. Through Sept. 30; Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2:30 p.m. At the Moulton Theatre, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Tickets: $11 to $18. Information: (714) 494-8021.

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