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Tiffany Baker IS Cleopatra!!!

Tiffany Baker IS Cleopatra!!!

I’ve never felt like I’ve ever REALLY seen Shakespeare’s Cleopatra performed right, that is until tonight when the young and beautiful actress Tiffany Baker just blew the roof off of the tiny Main Stage of the Workshop Theater on 312 West 36th Street.

I’m mentioning the name and address of the theater. It’s between 8th & 9th Avenue on the 4th floor. It’s a little tricky to find, but I found it. And I’m mentioning all this info first because, unfortunately, you are going to just have to drop all your plans for this weekend and RUN to see it quick, because there are only three performances left. Sat at 2pm and 7:30 and again on Sunday at 2pm.

Tickets are at http://www.guerillashakespeare.org And the name of the play is “And to the Republic”

Time is running out to miss the birth of a star, and that star is Tiffany Baker. And Tiffany Baker IS Cleopatra!

I can’t say enough wonderful things about Tiffany Baker’s performance. Firstly, that NO ONE I’ve ever seen essay this difficult part, this legendary woman of infinite variety has done it justice. Until now.

And Tiffany Baker is playing her in this kind of cobbled together mash-up of “Coriolanus”, “Julius Ceasar” and “Anthony and Cleopatra” which the neo-phyte Guerrilla Shakespeare Project is calling “And to the Republic:The Roman Plays of Shakespeare Reconstructed.”

I’m not really sure what all this reconstructing was adding up to, except it puts Cleopatra front and center of all these plays(it’s only 90 mins.) and gives the scintillating young Ms. Baker the role of the career. Or her first outstanding role, in what I hope will be an equally outstanding career. She so good as Cleopatra you’ll never be able to get her out of your head, nor will you want to.

She deserves to be Cleopatra in a full-on production of Shakespeare’s “Anthony and Cleopatra.” And Shaw’s “Shakespeare and Cleopatra.” Why not?

I got the feeling after seeing Tiffany Baker’s ASTOUNDING turn as the Queen of the Nile that she could play ANYthing.

I’ve always felt Shakespeare wrote some of the world’s greatest roles for women. He just didn’t do it very much, and featured the male parts much more than he did the women. Because in those days, women weren’t allowed to be actresses, and so astonishingly the role of Cleopatra, one of the most difficult ones in the Shakespearean Canon, was originally played by a boy!

After you see Tiffany Baker, you’ll think not only could no one else play Cleopatra, but that no one else SHOULD. She’s THAT good!

Director Geordie Broadwater made the magical choice of giving Cleopatra the “Friends, Romans and Countrymen” speech here.(Also Caesar is an off-stage character. His assassination is never seen, nor is he.) That’s the famous speech that is usually intoned by Mark Anthony. But it is an electrifying moment that I’ll never forget when Ms. Baker takes the podium and profoundly DOES it.

Caesar was after all her lover. Or one of them.

She is at turns, sultry, seductive, intelligent, powerful, passionate, defiant, fierce, funny, all the adjectives that you think Cleopatra should be. With a whiskey voice that suggests Tullalah Bankhead crossed with Jacqueline Kennedy, she is royalty personified.

And this is a modern dress production. And costumer designer Lea Reeves has gone to town and given Ms. Baker the sharpest and chic-est tailored outfits to wear, as well as a red satin sheet. She looks equally ravishing in red as in black.

In the most minimal of minimalist settings(by Brooklyn Praxis), the struggling young company is well, struggling to do something new with Shakespeare, and what they’ve done this time is to afford Tiffany Baker an incredible star vehicle and I’m so glad they did!

I got to share a few stolen moments with the actress herself, who told me she was born in Detroit, but then at six moved to Jacksonville, Florida, so there is a touch of the Southern Belle in her. I see many Tennessee Williams plays ahead.

And having just graduated from NYU’s prestigious Grad Acting program with the rising star Dave Quay in her class, I really feel Tiffany Baker is in a class by herself. She totally credits her training at NYU for giving her the power, majesty and control to speak all of Cleopatra’s lines so perfectly and so memorably.

In someone so young, it is an astounding combination of artistry and technical prowess.

I can’t wait to see the next thing she’ll do! And don’t worry dear readers, dear cineastes, dear lovers of theater, I’ll keep you posted!

Brian Bedford dazzles in drag in Bway’s so-so “Earnest”

Having written and played Oscar Wilde in my own one-man show “Love, Oscar”, I have read every thing he wrote and everything that has been written about him, and so I came to the Broadway revival of his best play “The Importance of Being Earnest” fully loaded, as it were.

Brian Bedford, that most esteemed of great British stage actors working in North America, is starring in it at the American Airlines Theatre, in drag as Lady Bracknell, which is wonderful, and he also directed it, which is considerably less so.

This is shockingly his first major foray into drag, in itself  a great British tradition and Lady Bracknell is the role he was BORN to play obviously. His great made-up face is hovering over Broadway right now and it is really something to see, and utterly memorable.

His performance as Wilde’s legendary social gorgon is probably going to be considered as his most vivid portrayal ever. Especially since we, the American audience, get to see so little of his great stage performances. Mostly for the past twenty years or more, he’s been doing his great work at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario, Canada.

And once in a blue moon, one of those productions transfers here, and we get to see what we’ve been missing. Like Christopher Plummer’s great “King Lear” which was imported intact to Lincoln Center.

And also a number of years back a glittering revival of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” starred Bedford as an aging, befuddled Benedict. It ran for a decidely too-short a time at City Center.

Now, we have his dazzling Lady Bracknell on Broadway itself, in a half-American, half-Canadian do-over. Which he directed himself, and that’s the problem.

Nothing in this so-so production comes up to his overwhelming Lady B. Especially glaring is his casting of the two ingenue roles, Gwendolen and Cecily. Both rather plain, odd choices, Sara Topham from Stratford as Gwendolen and particularly Charlotte Parry as Cecily, barely gut the mustard, or even cut it, and Bedford pretty well blows them both off-stage.

 By using such un-ingenue-y ingenues, Bedford assures that his Lady Bracknell is the prettiest girl on the boards. And Topham and Parry are so wearisome, we can’t wait for Lady B. to return to the stage, and she only does appear twice, in two of the best scenes Wilde ever wrote.

Bedford’s production is a very traditional revival of “Earnest.” Lady Bracknell also almost always steals the show, as she does here, with the great introductory scene in Act One, then again the tremendous “handbag” scene in Act Three that works like a charm here because the Lady is front and center for nearly the whole, hilarious discovery/mistaken identity finale.

With two intermissions, you could really skip Act Two completely. Cecily and Gwendolen have to carry it, and they pretty much don’t. But thank god, the great American actress Dana Ivey does turn up as Miss Prism, and makes Act Two her own, and pretty much saved me from exiting the building. When she and Canon Chasuble, (Paxton Whitehead) are billing and cooing, it really is delightful. But then they leave and we’re left in hands of those unfortunate young women.

Wilde is all about Style with a Capital “S” and Bedford himself has it in spades. His outfits designed within an inch of their life by Desmond Heeley, Stratford’s resident costume and set designer, are sumptuous, to-die-for spectacles of overstatement and but also, a strange glamour. 

Lady Bracknell doesn’t just enter a room, she SAILS into it, like a Rose-Bowl float with all flags flying. And Bedford does not overplay this very overblown part. He UNDERdoes it, and creates a very believable British woman of a certain class and type. One can never forget Dame Edith Evans in the movie version, nor anyone else in that British cinema classic, and Bedford decides not to compete by being ever-so-much-quieter in a very LOUD role. Edith Evans BELLOWED her most famous line, “PRISM! Where is my Haaaaand Baaaag?!?” Brian Bedford’s Bracknell snips and sniffs. To great effect, his nostrils perpetually flaring as if smelling something bad.

His movement is minimal. His concentration intense. His enunciation and line reading precise. There is nothing over-the-top about his delicious Lady B as an Old Biddy, except perhaps his costumes and hats.

Lady Bracknell doesn’t laugh. Bedford’s Lady B. is a very serious woman indeed. She is entirely focused in her social climbing, and veddy, veddy determined in all her pursuits. I never noticed before how quite, quite often Lady Bracknell is talking about geography, real estate in particular and addresses that she can recite from memory, and of course, money.

I also had never noticed quite so much that Wilde, particularly in the first act, with Algernon Moncrief(Santino Fontana) and John Worthing(David Furr) is making gay puns and double entendres that the then entirely hidden homosexual community of the time would get, but no one else.

Like the discussion of cucumbers, which of course means something else phallic, if you think about it. The line “No cucumbers could be had even for ready money” that Lane the butler (a not very  convincing or British, Paul O’Brien) says to the always-eating Algernon takes on a WHOLE new meaning. So much of the play is coded for the 1890’s gays. Even the name Bracknell, means something else. A Brack was a swamp. So it’s Swamp Smell. Or something like that. I also always thought he based this his greatest part on his famous mother Lady Wilde, who was almost something of a giant-tess according to his friend and contemporary George Bernard Shaw.

Algernon has never been played as slightly pudgy and a tad bit short before, but this is a slightly interesting new fillup, that Bedford’s production and the casting of American Santino Fontana brings out. He’s always in pursuit of some kind of food, meals, teas, cakes, anything that adds a new wrinkle, but not much else to this always under-developed character. Michael Redgrave played him in the movie, as a dashing, upper-class leading man and usually the role is done that way.

Fontana’s Algy departs from that more than quite a bit, to say the least. He is dark, giggly, and devishly funny in a bouncy sort of way.

David Furr, as his partner in Bunburying (and if you think about THAT double entendre…well, I rest my case) is tall, and hefty. More of the leading man than Fontana, but a burly, he-man jock type. The sort you also never see in this part. He’s tall. Fontana isn’t. So they form a sort-of-Mutt ‘n’ Jeff comedy duo. Bedford has them enter at the beginning of the play whistling Laurel and Hardy’s movie theme song, for instance. Gilding the lily a tad, aren’t we, Brian?

Furr and Fontana, last year’s Drama Desk Award Winner for Best Featured Actor in a Play for the short-lived “Brighton Beach Memoirs”, fare much better however than the ill-cast ingenues. And Paxton Whitehead is befuddled, maybe a bit too much so, as Conon Chasuble.

Wilde legend has it wrote “Importance of Being Earnest” in a weekend, or a week, for money. He wrote it while staying at place called Worthing, which is of course, one of the leading character’s name. It’s one of the greatest comedies of all times, and his greatest success. This all occuring before tragedy struck WHILE THIS PLAY WAS STILL RUNNING and he was the Toast of London.

Then, when he sued the Marquess of Queensbury, his lover, Bosey’s father, for slander for Posing as a Somdomite,” which proved true, he landed in jail for two years of hard-labor, because in modern parlance, he came out of the closet. Homosexuality was completley illegal at that time. His life was ruined at the same time his legend was made.

But his glittering wit and intelligence lives merrily on even in this half-successful “Important of Being Earnest.” Brian Bedford’s Bracknell will be the role he is most remembered for, so go see it for that, and for Dana Ivey, but not much else.

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