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The Next Batch of Serious Theater Critics Takes on an Impressive New Caligula


Behold the man
By Chris Mills

Has André De Shields made a deal with the devil? As Caligula, in the Classical Theatre of Harlem’s current production, he claims he is God. He sleeps with his sister. Most potently, he has a WWF-style smack-down with Jesus Christ himself—an act he mourns only because, given how handsome Jesus is, he’d really rather have sex with him. But the proof of De Shields’s Faustian bargain is in the performing. As a swirling vortex of energy, charisma, and charm, he becomes the creature of pure Roman ego that he knows we’ve come to see. Once this nearly 60-year-old performer takes the stage, he never gives it up, and the audience, caught up in his buoyant portrayal of the nearly mad emperor, wants him to keep it. Denouncing Camus’s and Bob Guccione’s treatments of his story, this new Caligula offers sex as philosophy and decadence as poetics. Blithely skipping over the atrocities of the emperor’s reign, the production focuses on the spirit of rebellion and excess at its heart. The cast’s chanting of “ecce homo”—as Caligula preeningly displays himself to the audience—underscores the production’s desire to present the emperor as a poet of the flesh who resists constraining religious beliefs. It is here that the show cracks a bit under the strain of its conflicting impulses: The angry mob murders and then deifies Caligula for his deeply held and boldly displayed resistance.

What the show lacks in dramaturgical coherence, however, it makes up for in campy jubilation. Hints of Sun Ra and James Brown run cheek by jowl with a testifying Gospel style—including a call to the altar, where audience members are led into the “Cosmic Pool” to receive their “healing.” CTH founder Alfred Preisser’s light directorial touch extends through an articulate and playful staging which combines Roman senate with contemporary circus; cast members stand on truncated pedestals, a kilt-clad muscle boy represents both a sexy court member and the race of Celts, and a striped-shirted peanut vendor functions as both audience greeter and (ignored) oracle. Caligula‘s costume design is a winning mix of Egyptian sandals and gold lamé. The lighting cleverly extends all the scenic hints the audience is given, helping the production take full advantage of the cramped space.

Though Caligula’s last night is foretold by the peanut vendor, the tragic dimension is only a brief episode. Instead, it’s Caligula’s “Let’s get this party started” attitude that remains in the mind long after the show is over.

Chris Mills is an ABD doctoral candidate at NYU’s Department of Performance Studies.

Hot times under the Harlem big top
By Emily M. Long

As one of ancient Rome’s most eccentric emperors, Gaius Caligula Caesar has long been a subject of fascination for writers ranging from Suetonius to Albert Camus. Classical Theatre of Harlem takes its turn with Caligula, a new play with music written by CTH co-founder and executive producer Alfred Preisser and Donkey Show creator Randy Wiener.

Set in a circus, Caligula depicts the emperor’s final entertainment. The title character is fearlessly and energetically played by two-time Tony nominee André De Shields, for whom the role was written. He runs the show, complete with beautiful dancing slaves and a ringleader clad in purple thigh-high fishnet stockings and gold short shorts. His court is one of liberation and excess, where horses can be named senators and sex with siblings, women, men, children, and animals is encouraged. As Caligula’s wife Caesonia points out early on, the dirty work of government is being done elsewhere by others, so there’s not much to worry about here. What Caligula does worry about, though, is the possibility of his people worshipping someone other than himself. When outside religions threaten his supremacy, Caligula pushes everyone around him past the brink of tolerance for his antics.

I must admit that I went into Caligula with certain expectations. I figured that a show about one of history’s most compelling tyrants would be horribly tragic and filled with the suffering of his mistreated subjects. Instead, I left Harlem with upbeat show tunes running through my head. Until the very end of the play, we don’t see any of the dire consequences of Caligula’s actions. The slaves seem to be having a great time singing, dancing, and enjoying one another, while the appointment of Caligula’s horse to the senate and the emperor’s sexual relations are occasions for broad humor.

We have nothing but fun watching Caligula—that is, until the last 10 minutes, when the more serious drama kicks in. While his downfall is a poignant example of what happens when power is abused, the show is ultimately memorable for its menacing humor and energy. Caligula can be disturbing, but it’s mostly a guilty pleasure.

Emily Long is a student in Columbia University School of the Arts program in Dramaturgy/Script Development

Imperial leather
By Emily Otto

Buoyant calliope music greets the audience. A peanut vendor in a pink-and-white-striped shirt chats affably with patrons while climbing over their seats. The performance space evokes a tarp-and-pole big top. This jovial atmosphere hardly seems appropriate for Caligula, an emperor known for cruelty and perversion. But then again, Caligula was acclaimed for his “entertainments”—circus-like performances in which he shamed and abused his subjects. In the Classical Theatre of Harlem Caligula, the infamous emperor becomes the charismatic leader of a cult of celebrity, contextualizing his vices in a contemporary, self-aware setting. This Caligula strives to outdo his past incarnations, mocking the Guccione/Penthouse film that made sex boring, as well as Brecht’s “forgettable” rendering and Camus’ “term paper” of a play. He knows that history can be rewritten, and sets out to be the biggest, baddest, sexiest Caligula of them all.

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.

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