According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


To say that Albert Camus’s 1944 play, Caligula, still feels contemporary is to speak poorly of the 21st century. We may have only the terror-riddled, Depression-struggling present of today’s headlines to blame, but who doesn’t at least appreciate the unsettling notion that whatever deity or sense of purpose we might have counted on has abandoned us? Caligula explores the consequences—both seductive and destructive—of giving up and succumbing to the law of arbitrary cruelty. It is to Camus’s credit that his script, in the New York premiere of David Grieg’s taut translation, manages to sizzle despite an inept production by Horizon Theatre Rep.

Photo/Richard Termine

Reviewed by Jason Fitzgerald

Composed in the early days of Hitler’s rise to power (it took five years to be published), Caligula was Camus’s attempt to make sense of the tyrannical cruelty that was casting its shadow over Europe. His model is the mad Roman emperor Caligula, who, Camus surmises, was transformed from a kind and beloved leader to a vicious tyrant in the wake of his beloved sister’s death. Awakened to the arbitrary purpose of the universe—the nihilistic philosophy that is Camus’s legacy—Caligula decides to give his subjects “the gift of meaninglessness.” Years pass as his horror-struck advisors watch their leader pronounce death sentences and even famines on a whim, until they finding themselves tottering on the brink of the same madness.

Thankfully, director Rafael de Mussa (who plays Caligula) avoids a George W. Bush parallel, putting his actors in contemporary dress but leaving the whole production in an unspecified time and place. The Bush comparison wouldn’t fit anyway: the president’s failings come from the vague sense of himself as God’s vessel, while Caligula’s come from the concrete certitude that neither God nor sacred values are worth depending on. David Grieg’s translation makes these motivations clear, remaining faithful to the original while scraping away excess verbiage (he brought a similar economy to his translation of The Bacchae at the Lincoln Center Festival this past summer).

It is unclear, though, why Grieg chose to premiere his new translation with this company of actors. Whether due to youth, inexperience, or weak talent, they bring little urgency or realness to the play. In scene after scene where the emperor’s advisors must respond to his cruelty, the company’s emotions are circumstantial rather than existential, like schoolchildren angry that their principal is loose with the detention slips. De Mussa captures the dark exterior of his antihero, but he fumbles when asked to reveal the pain and confusion that have caused Caligula’s madness. The challenge of the play is to make the audience feel both the terror of the emperor’s subjects and the pity the man himself deserves. This production achieves neither.

By contrast, the simple set design by Peter R. Feuchtwanger—a long table with chairs in front of five perfectly spaced-out columns—suggests a more successful direction. A blazing (fake) fire, sitting atop a pedestal upstage center and the focal point of the symmetrical space, is a correlative to the play’s central question. Does the flame represent God? A faith in humanism? The steady glow of the ego? Or is it simply a stage prop, mocking our futile search for greater meaning? Staring into the fire, one glimpses the promise of the wave of Caligula productions that Horizon Theatre Rep’s may anticipate, especially if the next four years of federal governance are not all we’re depending on them to be.

Caligula (2 hours, no intermission)
Theatre Row: The Kirk Theatre (410 W 42nd Street)
Tickets (212-279-4200): $18.00
Performances (through 12/30): Sun 3pm, Mon & Tues 8pm, Thurs - Fri 8pm

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