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“Caligula Maximus”: Circus Maximus
By Beatrice Williams-Rude

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 17. 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 17. Photo by Lia Chang

Think not Camus, but Fellini to the next dimension. This “circus” is definitely not for children.

In fact, for those who look without listening, who are so riveted/repelled by the spectacle, it may seem sensationalist, a rock musical to make “Hair” pale by comparison, replete with nudity, sex, every form of perversion (simulated), violence (simulated) as well as audience participation.

But for those who listen, this circus is a metaphor for the mad world in which Caligula then, and we now, live. It is a probing, provocative and profound piece of theater. There is not a group – from Ireland to India – or a religion that is not skewered. And with the logic of its own creed. Caligula notes the “cruel” god of the Hebrews and goes on to say he’s “had more children than a prelate.” He points to the savagery in the theology of various religions

There is a debate about what constitutes sanity. Is war sane? Are those who perpetrate it sane?

When Caligula defends his own sanity after making his horse a Roman senator he points to the horrors men have committed that no horse ever did. “No horse ever strapped explosives to his flank and blew up a city bus.” The men who do such things are insane; the rulers who praise such actions are insane. The horse never did. Therefore the horse is sane, and worthy of ruling. An anachronism, yes, But that’s the point. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

As is intended, this Caligula exemplifies Lord Acton’s observation that “All power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” When Caligula indulges in monstrous behavior because he “just wants to have fun” the point is made that to the victim, whether the pain is inflicted for a prince’s pleasure or a priest’s conviction, matters little.

The question is raised as to why so many more people know of Caligula than of most of those who built Western civilization. Caligula posits that there is more of him in us than we like to admit. The Hyde inside of Jekyll. “Who will save us from ourselves?” he asks.

This is a thinking person’s piece; it questions assumptions and bedrock convictions. This is Alfred Preisser’s way, pin pricks, pithy one liners, the audience isn’t told what to believe, it’s prompted to think. Preisser, who wrote this opus with Randy Weiner, and directed it, previously wrote a brilliant and devastating version of “The Trojan Women,” which he also directed. His direction of Macbeth produced the best production this reviewer has ever seen; voodoo Macbeth with a crackling undercurrent of sexuality. Christopher McElroen, who produced this “Caligula” is also a director; his work with Chekhov plays is extraordinary. He brought out all the poignancy of “The Cherry Orchard” and the myriad facets of “The Three Sisters.”

This cast is the hardest-working ensemble of diverse talents with vastly varied backgrounds that could be assembled. Each plays many parts and the energy level could light up Manhattan. In addition to well-trained experienced actors, singers and dancers, there are actual circus performers, strippers, muscle men and body builders., Heading it all is the utterly astonishing Ryan Knowles, as beautiful a young man as the historical Caligula, an actor of range, sensitivity, colossal endurance, and a solid singer.

An interesting and pointed bit of casting has the actor portraying the ethereal, tender, loving Jesus (Aaron Strand) looking like an identical twin of Caligula.

The dazzling aerialist Anya Sapozhnikova plays Drusilla, Caligula’s beloved sister, the relationship with whom leads to quoting the Oscar Wilde line “Each man kills the thing he loves.” [” the brave man with a sword, the coward (Judas) with a kiss.” ]

At the beginning of the performance, as part of the circus atmosphere, a “peanut vendor” exhorts the audience to buy his wares. The “peanut vendor” is God (Lugman Brown), in the form of everyman. It is this character who foretells ‘Caligula’s doom. The thought is presented that ultimately sadistic decadence destroys itself.

When “Marat/Sade” opened on Broadway, this reviewer, then a very young actress, refused to go because the subject matter was so offensive. She was admonished by the great drama critic Richard Watts, Jr., who said, “If you’re serious about the theater, you’ll see it.” Now it’s this reviewer’s turn to say, “If you’re serious about the theater (world, street, experimental, theater in all its forms), politics, history, philosophy and/or theology, you’ll go to the Ellen Stewart Theatre (La MaMa) and witness “Caligula Maximus.” It’s run has been extended to April 17.

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