Roman Times

There are differing opinions floating about concerning the value of the scores of theater festivals that pop up in New York every year. Based on the success stories from these events, it's clear that their strongest asset to the artistic community is in identifying promising new playwrights and composers. At the Midtown International Theater Festival, a theater company appropriately named Unartistically Frustrated is presenting End Caligula, a smart, funny new play by Sean Michael Welch. As with most festivals, performances are scheduled back to back, to the detriment of those who like their theater to start on time. (On this particular night, the show began 20 minutes after its listed start time.) The three-quarters-arena black box with the fire engine-red seating contained a few props and set pieces originating from recent times. It was clear that this take on the famously equine-philic Roman emperor would be transported to the modern day.

The story begins as a middle-aged senator, Chaerea, tries to convince younger senator Sabinus that action should be taken to overthrow the Emperor Caligula. Much fun is had in the back and forth between the men, as the literal-minded Sabinus dissects Chaerea's statements even as he struggles to understand them. There are no satisfyingly concrete reasons given for their dissatisfaction in Caligula as a leader, though there is talk about the outrageous ways he supposedly entertains his houseguests.

Indeed, even when the man himself is brought onstage (accompanied by an amusingly tough-talking female soldier), there is nothing evil or crazy about him. Perhaps the stories spread about him are the fictional work of his Uncle Claudius, the stuttering, softheaded historian who may not be as dim as he lets on.

When the senators present Claudius with Caligula's report on the war in Germany, the elder gentleman mentions his nephew's strange affection for his horse. Upon leaving, Chaerea and Sabinus encounter news reporter/gossip hound Apostolus, played here as an oversexed, short-skirted, TV anchor-coiffed dame. Fearing that she'll write about their assassination schemes, Sabinus reluctantly ponies up the pony rumor. (History can fill you in on the rest of the story.)

Ryan Blackwell (Sabinus) and Matt Scott (Chaerea) make a fine team as the funny man/straight man duo. They seem to enjoy a strong rapport and ably handle the tricky and copious dialogue. Jesse Sneddon's Caligula is an enigma, all cool affability without displaying enough madness or sanity so you can make up your mind about his capability. As Claudius, Offie Sherman does a shticky, stuttering clown act in public, but comes across much differently when he's alone writing in his journals.

The cross-gender casting of the soldier and Apostolus does not strain credibility. Still, while Katherine Harte underplays as the Secret Service-esque strongman, Heather Lasnier overdoes it in Apostolus's flirtatious pursuit of a story. It would've been interesting to see her use the "helpless female" approach, so plausible in the patriarchal times portrayed, to get what she wanted.

Playwright Welch's story employs an interesting revisionist history, giving enough back story without becoming a documentary, and enough clever wordplay without stopping the action. As directed by Stacee Mandeville, the cast is given lots of stage business, much of which earns its own laughs.

In a summer bursting with productions, the theater audience has a lot of choices in genre, location, and price range. At the same time, it's difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. For people who like original, intelligent comedy, go for these grains.

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