BOTTOM LINE: With a strong message about the contradictions of both love and government, you don't have to be familiar with Camus nor Caligula to enjoy this production.
"By definition, a government has no conscience. Sometimes it has a policy, but nothing more."
Albert Camus is often considered one of the twentieth century’s most influential existentialists, though he would not approve of this label. (Incidentally, he also happens to be among this reviewer’s favorite authors.) It seems that as the new millennium matures, existential questions return to the forefront. Caligula is a story of a disillusioned leader who abuses his power in vain. It is only appropriate that Horizon Theatre Rep should choose to present Caligula now.
Produced at the impressive, newly renovated Theatre Row Studios, Caligula welcomes its audience with an impressive set. Tall columns lend a Roman flavor, while an oversized banquet table surrounded by gold chairs can’t help but reflect a very well-known piece of art. Set designer, Peter R. Feuchtwanger, brings the symbolism home with an ever-present burning flame in the background. Lighting designer, Jeff Croiter, continues this timeless design with a hint of 1920s flavor by combining traditional warm lighting effects and romantic columns of light with the starkness of exposed light bulbs. The attention to detail with the costumes and hair by Jennifer Nweke furthers the concept of a timeless era that could just as easily be from the 1920s, as it could be today, as it could be tomorrow. Even though the two hour run time sans intermission is a little scary, don’t worry, it goes by surprisingly fast. Definitely don’t let it deter you from seeing the show. Caligula provides a pleasant evening of theatre.
I have mainly one problem with this production. I simply cannot allow myself to believe that fight choreographer Rick Sordelet could be responsible for the borderline laughable death scenes. Simply google his name and you will see that this man is a tremendous fight choreographer with massive Broadway and film credits (the film “Dan in Real Life” and Broadway’s The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Aida, and 110 in the Shade to name only a few)! I have witnessed examples of his superb choreography in the past. Sitting in the audiences of American Buffalo (Broadway revival, 2008), The Homecoming (Broadway revival, 2007-2008), and Curtains (Broadway 2007-2008), Mr. Sordelet, on more than one occasion, has caused me to jump in my seat, clutch my pearls, and gasp for air with his convincing violence. Therefore, I suspect director Rafael De Mussa, is to credit for the unfortunate distractions. It appears that at the expense of believability, the director attempted to create an “artistic” stage picture. I’ve seen this happen before and I will never understand it.
Nonetheless, I implore any audience member to suspend their disbelief and forgive those brief moments of unbelievability. After all, the story itself already asks you to believe that one man is capable of murdering and raping whomever he wishes (including the moon) at random with little to no objection. Why not believe that a person can be dead while sitting completely upright in a banquet chair and maintaing almost perfect posture? Fortunately, Mr. Sordelet has the opportunity to show off his stuff with a massive group fight scene that is rather impressive. Multiple guns, punches, and all manors of violent acts are displayed in a moment of chaos that is like a brief waltz among madmen with all the grace of a dance but none of the beauty -- and that’s a good thing. Minus the glaring death scenes, Caligula is a solid production with several fine performances that are well worth seeing.
A solid ensemble overall, a few actors rise to the top. In particular, Ben Gougeon (Helicon) captivates with mesmerizing stealth. Mr. Gougeon transforms ever so subtly from a harmless, almost oafish teddy bear of a yes-man to a captivating, carnal conspirator. He creates a passionate villain that one loves to hate. Also noteworthy, is actor Miles Warner (Mucius). With heartbreaking eyes and a hauntingly expressive face, Mr. Warner creates a character whose soul disintegrates before one’s very eyes, a stunning performance. Chris Triana (Metellus) exhibits a flawless facility with language, which not only delivers a strong performance but is also a breath of fresh air. His clarity immediately dispels any confusion in the story-line. Moments of levity are unexpectedly delivered by Hungarian actor, Gustav Bodor (Octavius). A character that so easily could have been portrayed as obnoxious or whiney is nothing but charming and likable in Bodor’s hands. Bodor’s keen comic timing and sympathetic character is perfection. Special nod should also be given to De Mussa (Caligula). According to Caligula, an actor need only be devoid of emotion to play a god on stage. De Mussa follows his character’s advice and, in doing so, creates a powerful demon. Too often actors give performances laden with yelling, crying, pointing, slamming of fists and red-in-the-facing. This reviewer appreciates any actor who can achieve a dominating character without resorting to these lesser tactics, which De Mussa does. While I found some of De Mussa’s directorial choices to lack solidarity, I must applaud his acting performance.
Again, though I do not love all of De Mussa’s choices as director of the production, his hand in aiding his actors to create fully fleshed characters and relationships is apparent. The one-on-one moments between actors are delicious. If it were a film, I believe every tight shot would be amazing. On stage however, and sitting out in the 99-seat house, the effect is a little less wonderful. As a director his staging is a little weak but his ability to glean fire from his actors is apparent. If I am being a little picky it is only because Horizon Theatre Rep’s production of Caligula has put itself on a high enough bar that it should be measured as such.
Another thing that really makes De Mussa and Horizon Theatre Rep shine is their open-minded casting choices (not to mention the sheer size of the cast). Thank you for creating a world on stage that is reflective of the streets we walk. Foreign accents tickle the ears, different ethnicities grace the eyes, all creating a landscape that is lush and refreshing. This is what “open casting” really is at its best. No political agenda or “hit me over the head message.” No racial injustice to drive home. Simply a reflection of the real everyday world. Different accents, cultures, and ethnicities exist in this world simply because they do. People of minority don’t go walking around every minute of their lives thinking, “Hmm ... how can I make the way I look or sound be a political statement?” and Horizon Theatre Rep gets that. Kudos! Kudos to you, Horizon Rep, for actually doing what so many other theaters say they do, but don’t. I only hope to see more of it in the future.
Caligula is well worth the price of admission. The story is pertinent, several of the actors are exceptional. The quality of the production is excellent, to which beautiful and simple set, lights and costumes all contribute. Caligula is what off-Broadway should be.
(Caligula runs through December 30, Thursday - Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm, at The Kirk @ Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street (between 9th & 10th Avenues). Tickets are $18, available through Ticket Central, www.ticketcentral.com. run time is approximately 2 hours with no intermission.)