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Matt Roberson · March 19, 2010

Ryan Knowles (center) stars as Caligula, with the cast of Alfred Preisser and Randy Weiner’s CALIGULA MAXIMUS, directed by Alfred Preisser, at the Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 E. 4th St. in New York through April 10. Photo by Lia Chang

Ryan Knowles (center) stars as Caligula, with the cast of Alfred Preisser and Randy Weiner’s CALIGULA MAXIMUS, directed by Alfred Preisser, at the Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 E. 4th St. in New York through April 10. Photo by Lia Chang

As Mayor Bloomberg is constantly telling us, New Yorkers are as safe today walking the streets of our fair city as we have ever been. Okay, so the police have our backs on the street, but who will save us from the theatre? Maybe it’s just me, but on stages across this city, drama has gotten downright dangerous! In the past month alone, I’ve seen a guy in a top hat shove a toilet plunger into his hind parts, severed hands being tossed around like baseballs, and Caligula…oh, dear, dear Caligula. (At this point, I’m supposed to decry the downward spiral of the American theatre, and I would, if these shows weren’t so much fun!)

Caligula Maximus, which just opened at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theater, is the latest creation from Classical Theatre of Harlem co-founder Alfred Preisser and Randy Weiner, owner of performance nightclub The Box. Caligula is long-time collaborators Preisser and Weiner’s (along with other CTH founder Christopher McElroen) creative follow-up to last season’s Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe, a work that remains the most fun I’ve had in a New York theater. Caligula, while very different from the glitzy, polished setting of Supreme, covers similar thematic ground. In the world of Preisser and Weiner, bold, uncompromising “sinners” get their chance on the stand. You may not like what they have to say about the boring, joyless, often-times contradictory society you and I live within, but you’re going to hear it. And chances are, after spending time with their wonderfully crafted, outlandish characters, chances are you’ll agree that it truly is better to “laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.”

Set in the circus-like atmosphere of Caligula’s Rome, Caligula Maximus is stated to take place on the last night of the wild emperor’s life. Why this matters is never made clear, as it seems that any night with Caligula could be his, or your, last. Surrounded by slaves of varying expertise including jugglers, tattooed musclemen, and at least one naked hula-hooper, Caligula has turned his royal court into a place where truly anything goes. It is a world that, on the surface, may be unruly, but is also free of judgment and traditional societal expectations. Perhaps Caligula says it best himself, when he sings, “If you’d like to f_ _ _ a horse, I’m the guy who says ‘of course’.” The bubble of inhibition is further enforced through the sexual but precise choreography (Jessica Krueger/Charletta Rozzell/Angela Buccinni), nude to partially nude cast, and free copies of Penthouse Magazine that seemed to be floating about. This public breaking of society’s taboos is, without a doubt, exciting, but unfortunately, it is also what keeps this show from being totally fulfilling. Preisser and Weiner rest the show’s thematic weight upon these acts of inhibition, leaving me to feel that at some point, it was repeating itself. While I’m all for orgies, by the time the second “cosmic pool” rolled around, I couldn’t help but find it a bit superfluous.

Not that they couldn’t have dug further. Caligula Maximus is blessed with some terrific performances, perfectly capable of working within a place where spectacle meets message. As the title character, Ryan Knowles is perfect. Made-up as a Jagger-Hedwig hybrid, Knowles moves between his songs and speeches with ease, hitting all the right moments. At times we’re enthralled and at other times disgusted with him, but always interested. As his sister/lover Drusilla, cirque performer Anya Sapozhnikova is understated, mysterious, and powerful in her small but important role. She’s the only quiet one in the cast, and with this silence Anya says quite a lot. Also, singer/actor Luqman Brown is funny and engaging in his role as “the peanut guy.”

Underdeveloped plot aside, there is something to be said for the charged environment the creative team of Weiner, Preisser, and producer McElroen build into each of their shows. Never before have I seen such a mix of people at one performance (an audience that actually looks like our city), all engaging one another with the sense of excitement and anticipation normally reserved for live concerts. It is, for me, more than a refreshing change from the “oh so serious” world of New York theatre; it is the direction in which at least some of our stages should go. Not that every production should feel a need to bowl you over with “wow” like Caligula does. But, if shows can find a way to tap into the spirited audience/performer exchange happening at works like this, we may be on our way to making theatre a real presence in the day-to-day culture of generations to come. After all, this is the age of YouTube, digital filmmaking, and the blog. To leave audiences out of the theatrical experience is at best blind, and at worst, yet another nail in the coffin of the form.

Weiner, Preisser, and McElroen have more work lined up, and for this reviewer, I can’t wait. While they haven’t yet found that place where thoughtful plot meets creatively explosive spectacle, it can only be a matter of time until they do. And when that moment comes, watch out: it’ll be one of the greatest things you’ve ever seen.
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