The play takes place on what will prove the final night of Caligula's life. His legion of followers slithers onstage, enthralled by fervent devotion. As a live percussionist creates a cacophony of shimmering rumbles, Caligula's long-suffering lover Caesonia (Carmen Barika) sings a soaring, otherworldly aria. The rhythm intensifies and the chorus erupts into a frenzy of writhing bodies.

When Caligula enters, his intoxicating aura commands every inch of the stage. And despite our knowledge of Caligula's evil, we can hardly blame the chorus for their zeal. Who could help but fall under André De Shields' sway? With a glint in his eye and a seductive smile, he directly addresses the audience for most of the performance, pulling the entire house into Caligula's twisted world. His razor-sharp focus and rock-hard body spotlight his self-possessed, piercing intelligence as a performer. As Caligula, he simultaneously mesmerizes and terrifies.

The full force of Caligula's wrath, however, lies in wait. Most of the play is dominated by song, dance, and exuberant copulation. Occasionally, the peanut vendor interrupts the festivities, warning Caligula of his impending fate. Caligula, meanwhile, revels in the joys of unfettered power, parading around the stage atop his horse (Noshir Dalal, clad in s/m leather) and naming the animal head of the Senate. He proudly flouts his incestuous relationship with his sister Drusilla (played by Zainab Jah with haunting subtlety), and after defeating Jesus Christ in a shrieking, body-slamming wrestling match, declares himself the one true deity.

Soulful Roman nights
photo: Mike Messer
Soulful Roman nights


By Alfred Preisser and Randy Weiner
Classical Theatre of Harlem/HSA Theatre
645 St. Nicholas Avenue

When Caligula suspects his subjects of disloyalty, he unleashes his whip-cracking fury. His followers finally turn on him, and their swift, brutal retribution strips him of his power, revealing his underlying insecurity. When he turns to the audience and utters the words "I'm afraid of dying alone," we see a man who spent his life desperately trying to be crazy enough to be remembered. In 2005, when average citizens will lie, cheat, and eat calves' brains while hanging naked from a helicopter in order to see themselves on television, Caligula's call for excess echoes the relentless pursuit of fame in our contemporary American empire, where decidedly common people seek validation through public reinvention. After Caligula's death, De Shields tells the audience, "There is no Caligula. It's just a play. I made him up. We all did." By reframing history with a whip and a smile, this production slyly illuminates the present.

Emily Otto is an M.F.A. student in Dramaturgy at A.R.T.'s Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University

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