nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 6, 2008
Depending on the circles you travel in, when someone mentions the name of Caligula, you think of either Malcolm MacDowell or John Hurt (the former starred in the Bob Guccione/Tinto Brass motion picture about the notorious Roman emperor, the latter in the BBC TV series I, Claudius). Both present Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus—who is most popularly known by his nickname, which means "little boots"—as a pathological megalomaniac who convinced himself that he was a living god and therefore entitled to carry out every crazed capricious whim, whatever the cost in human life or suffering.
Albert Camus, the French existential writer, uses Caligula's story to explore something deeper than mere lunacy.
I decree a famine starts tomorrow. We all know what a famine is: it's a scourge. Tomorrow there will be scourging, and I will stop it when I feel like it. After all, I don't have many ways to prove I'm free. Freedom's always bought at someone else's expense.
Camus asks in his play Caligula, what intellectual ends might turn a rational human being into a Hitler or a Stalin? (It was written during World War II so those were his immediate referents, but the tyrant could just as easily be Idi Amin or Pol Pot.) The philosophical argument only carries so far, but it's fascinating, and makes this play compelling and startlingly resonant.
The rest of the play, presented by Horizon Theatre Rep using a new translation by David Greig, trades in the random cruelty and violence that we've seen in far more horrifying and unbridled fashion in the movie or on TV. Director Rafael De Mussa (who is also the artistic director of Horizon, and has cast himself in the title role here) has opted to present the play without intermission, which makes for more than two uninterrupted hours of escalating brutality—a lot to ask of an audience.
The production is problematic in other ways as well. Caligula is a very young emperor (he died at 28), but De Mussa looks significantly older than all of the actors who portray his advisers (who tell us, over and over again during the play, that they are much older than their ruler). This chorus of patricians is portrayed by actors of great ethnic diversity (an admirable casting decision), but almost all are betrayed onstage by their relative inexperience (six out of 13 cast members are making their NYC or off-Broadway debuts here). Also, it does not appear that English is De Mussa's first language, and the clarity of his speeches is often jeopardized by his accent.
The staging is hampered by the use of a single, bulky set (designed by Peter R. Feutchwanger) consisting of an enormous table with about a dozen chairs around it—it doesn't correspond with what's called for in the script and constrains movement on stage severely; it also adds a claustrophobic feeling to the proceedings by replacing the drama's numerous locales with a single, nondescript room.
So unfortunately, the play is not as well-served by this revival as it might be; in fact, the novelty of seeing Camus's work mounted in New York (as far as I can tell, this is the first professional production since 1986) may be your prime motivator for taking in this production.