Big Boots, Little Emperor

It is not faint praise to say that Horizon Theater Rep’s production of Caligula (by Albert Camus) is better than one might expect. Phrased in almost entirely philosophical terms, Camus’s script, translated by David Greig, is “set in an unspecified country during the twentieth century” and features a self-obsessed ruler named Caligula. Camus is obviously indebted to the specific legacy of Gaius Julius Caesar’s extravagant madness. Like the real-life Caligula, director and star Rafael De Mussa’s ambitions are large, and it is not surprising that he falls short. However, Caligula’s actions make for a literally spectacular show, at times as gruesome and uncomfortable as a gladiatorial match. The twisted ironies—perversions that become normal through repetition—provide the humor that makes the show an entertaining, if ponderous, diversion. Taking inspiration from the strange history of Caligula’s reign, Camus’s play gives an explanation for his random acts of madness. After several years of respectable reign, Caligula began to exhibit the bizarre capriciousness for which he is remembered, in history and art. Among some of the more fantastic claims: that he treated his horse as consul; proclaimed himself Venus; and executed according to the nonjudgmental laws of logic. For example, when Caligula was reported to have fallen ill, a patrician offered to give his life for the improvement of the emperor’s health. Upon his recovery, Caligula took it. This sort of reasoning gives the play its shape and its voice.

Delighting in Caligula’s diabolical mania with a relish similar to that of Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, De Mussa manages an ironically whimsical gravity. His deadliness is clear, but also desperately funny. The murderous acts are so extreme that there is no appropriate reaction—but it’s hard not to laugh at the absurdity.

However, because Caligula’s actions are based on a dogged commitment to the logical, each grotesque act is equally terrible. The plot, therefore, neither advances nor picks up speed. There are moments of tension, but overall it can be disappointingly dull. When nothing makes sense, everything makes sense—the play becomes so caught up in its twisted logic that everything is a bit too straight. As Caligula becomes depressed, claiming: “everything comes to the same thing. A little sooner, a little later,” the audience experiences a corresponding letdown.

If the other actors were as charismatic and energetic as De Mussa, perhaps the lack of tension would be a less glaring flaw. As it is, there is a general greenness and discomfort among the actors portraying the aristocracy. When they are plotting, Camus’s words feel about as dull and heavy as a Roman column. Among the other stars orbiting Caligula’s planet, Romy Nordinger as his wife, Caesonia, and Ben Gougeon as his henchman, Helicon, stand out for their performances. Still, there is no character to identify or sympathize with, just a powerful overarching concept.

The set likewise contributes to the show’s stagnancy. There is only so much room for the actors to move and interact when a table dominates center stage. This table is occasionally used to clever effect: to establish hierarchy, to show disrespect, to stand between two dueling personalities; however, it is just an object and in the end it takes up a lot of space that might be put to better use.

The table is part of a festive set that uses more modern examples of lavishness to echo the excesses of Rome. Little is done to explain or emphasize the particular music, wardrobe or set choices, but there is little about this interpretation that adds insight to a text that seems to prefer the power of the word above all else.

In the end it is Camus’s observations and wit, as well as Caligula’s fascinating story that provide the show’s highlights. However, though the writing is precise and perfect as a logically reasoned construction, the play’s failings are mostly due to the fact that the logic of absolute power is self-sustaining and fatalistically circular. When Caligula asks: “what god could fill a lake so deep?” the ensuing silence is profound. Certainly the gods of theater are not up to the task. Though he grasps at meaning, Caligula is left blinking at the void, with no more significance than when the curtain lifted. The theory of absolutes is complete, but at the cost of story and character.

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