In the opening musical number of Caligula Maximus (at the Ellen Stewart Theater through April 17), Caligula (played by former children's television host Ryan Knowles), wearing bright blue eye shadow, his bare chest hairless, screams out, "You don't know me Gore Vidal!" as he prances lightly across the set. The guttural challenge sets the raucous, irreverent and playful tone for what at first seems almost like a publicity stunt, but somehow transforms into a purposefully crafted, though at times sloppy, parody of the inherently conservative tendencies of society, particularly in how we think about and watch sex (or refuse to). The aforementioned reference is a nod towards Vidal's problematic (and by most accounts failed) attempt to bring his version of Caligula to the silver screen in 1979, which only saw fruition after he teamed up with Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione—who provided the funding on the condition that over 6 minutes of explicit, hardcore coitus be added.
Though there is no actual sex on the stage, or rather, the circus ring, in Caligula Maximus, sex is mentioned, hinted at, alluded to, talked about straight out, or pantomimed, in almost every single line uttered or action taken. If this feral extravaganza took itself even the least bit seriously, or tried to posit the production as something other than a taboo-prodding farce, it would have failed. But the fourth wall is broken constantly and the actors literally trade insults with the audience, challenging them to loosen up, live a little, come down in to the weird pool of ecstasy, or something to that effect—just give in to the sheer pleasure of the experience for once, will ya? Though a lot of the production tends to rely on nubile nude hoola-hooping, half-naked porcelain porn stars, and violent bloody spectacle to hold the crowd's attention (true, these things help), there is enough of a challenge in Caligula's appeal to the audience to give in to that kernel of hedonism that often lies latent in us all. As Caligula asks everyone in the audience to join him on stage, and very few people do, the real question becomes: What, exactly, is holding us back?
Though the plot could be transcribed on the back of a postage stamp and is largely based in a picaresque circus where one act follows another, the basic gist is that we are privy the greatest party Rome has ever seen, as well as Caligula's last night alive—accurately predicted by the prophecy-slinging peanut salesman at the beginning of the show. There is the opening musical number—with a moderate sonic showing by Knowles, his massive cartoon-like forehead, voice, mannerisms and makeup reminiscent of Dr. Frank-n-Furter—which as far as musicals go is well done but perhaps not as catchy as it could be, and won't leave you humming it on the way out of the theater. Caligula rides into the ring on a giant golden phallus carried by muscle-bound performers, accompanied by the musical backing of a talented bunch of musicians decked out in Kiss face paint and 90s grunge pageantry, pedaling punchy double-bass drumming and droning acid metal riffs, rounding out the endearing garage feel of the entire piece. Caligula goes through his entourage of slaves then, introducing and berating them, and if you can take your eyes off Justine Joli's glittery, er, features, you learn, among other things, that the king plans over the course of this night to have sex with his sister, sacrifice her, rip the head off their unborn child after he's cut it out of her, have a fist fight with Jesus, kill a bunch of people, have sex with a bunch of people, then make his horse a Senator (after presumably having sex with it). Don't worry: he's not insane, he just wants to have a good time—life is too short, no?
Though most of these bizarre incidences are garnered from the various legends and infamous myths that surround the Roman Empire and Caligula, who ruled just after Tiberius in the late 30s (CE), it would be a stretch to say this is a production based in historical fact. Randy Weiner and Alfred Preisser are both well known in the experimental theater strata as master showmen, and Weiner co-owns The Box on the LES—a venue known for its vaudevillian and circus-like performances and acts. Many historians agree that the real Caligula had advanced neurosyphilis and actually was insane, but Weiner and Preisser are more interested in promoting the fact that he was just misunderstood. In the play he makes his horse a Senator because logically a horse has never conspired to kill other horses; humans have though, and therefore horses are more fit to rule than humans. The thought is nice for a moment, but obviously the outcome of a sick and twisted logic.
In her on the fly review for the Voice, Alexis Soloski notes that most of the audience, when invited down at the end of the play "leave their freak flags furled" and much was the same the night I went, but it's interesting to note that Weiner and Preisser seem to count on this fact as the rest of the play is written with this in mind—that nobody but a handful of adventurous octogenarians (yup, the old fogies went down to dance with the porn star) would leave their risers to join in the fun. Caligula screams at the audience angrily, the house lights are up, illuminating us, why won't we join him? But the question is answered for us as the slaves rise up shortly thereafter and kill him (um, spoiler?). In a strange denouement the dead Caligula gets up and is asked who he is, "Caligula," he says. "Where do you live?" "I live in Inwood," he answers. "Why?" "Because I can't afford to live downtown." And likewise, his golden phallus was really just made of cardboard. It seems that Caligula is just like us, or just like a tiny part of us, and it might do us some good to let him out once in a while, even if we have to kill him off at the end of the night and begin the long subway journey home.
(photo credit: Lia Chang)