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A CurtainUp Review
By Les Gutman
Most of what we know of Caligula (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, Roman Emperor from 37 to 41 A.D.) derives from the infamous film starring Malcolm McDowell, and the truth is, much of the underlying historical record is both scant and questionable. What we know (or choose to believe) is that Caligula assumed his power and was intoxicated by the freedom it bestowed on him -- which translated into an appetite for sexual and other indulgences.
Classical Theatre of Harlem brings us a version of this history, written by CTH Artistic Director Alfred Preisser in collaboration with Randy Weiner (creator of The Donkey Show), from the point of view of the title character (André De Shields) -- at least up to a point. Fittingly set in a circus atmosphere (complete with a prophetic peanut vendor), we are urged to appreciate and join in Caligula's celebration of what it means to be totally free. Today will be the last day of his life, and it is an extravaganza of Ziegfieldian as well as Brechtian inspiration.
At times, one can get the impression that this Caligula is nothing more than an "entertainment," but that's deceiving. Mr. Preisser remains focused on conveying the story; the party atmosphere just delivers it with a carnival/cabaret aesthetic. Though there is a ringmaster (Paul J. Medford), it's apparent that Caligula, especially in the hands of Mr. De Shields, is in control here. There is singing, dancing and frivolity, as well as a plethora of flirtation (even with the audience) and uninhibited love-making of an orgiastic variety. (It gets fairly explicit, though in an "R" rather than "X-rated" way.) That doesn't mean there isn't a lot of skin on display, because there is. Over the course of the intermission-less show, the troupe reënacts most of Caligula's best known accomplishments -- raping and then killing most of his family and cohorts, appointing his horse as the leader of the Senate and so on. As promised early on, the main attraction finally arrives when, at the end of a series of thumbs-down for his gladiators' conquests (representing the known world's other cultures and theologies), Caligula himself is forced to have a go at Jesus (Noshir Dalal, who had an easier time earlier portraying the horse). (
The entire cast gives a fine effort here, but it's De Shields who steals the show. It's a remarkable sight -- cavorting around onstage and then leaping into the audience, he's like the Everyready ® Bunny, a one man marvel of energy and intensity mixed with genuine (if egomaniacal) feeling.
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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