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Theater Review – CALIGULA

14 Feb

In Walking Shadow Theatre Company’s regional premiere of Albert Camus’ Caligula, all the emperor wants is to possess the moon – to have what cannot be had, to turn impossible on its head and in doing so, to show people the truth of life (or at least, his well-thought out but perhaps ill-conceived interpretation of such a truth.)  It’s an intriguing take on what is historically viewed as a reign of madness and cruelty, but I couldn’t help but feel that the production fell somewhat short on delivering us the moon, instead choosing to precisely stage an essay as opposed to aggressively pursuing the deeper implications embedded in the text. 

Caligula, third emperor of Rome and only 27 years old, is missing in the opening moments of the play.  Upon his return, he is seized with a feverish desire to play fate, to turn logic into disarray, and it is his unique ability given the unchecked power he possesses to use the Roman citizens as his play-things in a ballet of madness that quickly de-evolves into cruelty, rape and murder.   Alliances are formed and broken, poets are much abused, and (I’m not giving anything away here, it’s historical,) Caligula finds himself in the possession of his death before the moon. 

While the first half is pretty slow going, the play begins to find some tension and conflict in the second act as even Caligula’s closest allies begin to fray at the edges when faced by the terrible reality and consequences of the emperor’s actions.  A key scene between Helicon (Charles Hubbell) and the writer Cherea (Sam Landman) jacks up the stakes momentarily, but that momentum slowly fades into an ending that, while inevitable, fails to land home. 

I highly recommend seeing the show in order to enjoy the solid performances from a number of the cast members, with Sam Landman, Charles Hubbell, and Sid Solomon standing out in particular.  Dave Gangler’s portrayal of Caligula is interesting and energetic, and it is certainly a challenging role, but I found myself pleading him to push it farther – past the bounds of logic so carefully argued throughout, and into a more transcendent and dangerous place so as to earn some of the catharsis in the climatic moments of the play.  To answer the “why” question – why did Caligula act as though he did – is to end the play.  Once we know why, there’s no reason to go on.  I felt as though the script presented the possibility of a hall of mirrors, in which each “realization of truth” would fracture into a thousand smaller questions, and so on and so forth.  This production doesn’t dwell quite long enough in this dramatic hallway, instead choosing a faithful and careful route that feels more clinical than explorative. 

Still, it’s difficult material and I find it hard to discourage such ambition.  The set is beautiful, the actors find a few wonderful moments to shine, and perhaps with time momentum and tension will find their grip early and not let go. 

Caligula, written by Albert Camus and directed by Amy Rummenie, plays February 12-28, 2009 at the Red Eye Theater.  Ticket prices are $14-$16.  For reservations, call 612-375-0300 and/or visit www.walkingshadowcompany.org for more information.

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