Monday, March 22, 2010


As you probably know, I started in working in theater as a teenager in the mid-1980s. Might as well have been a century ago, things have changed so much. Anytime I'm with someone else who was around in the 1980s, it's inevitable we fall into old fogey talk, "Remember when....?" As in, "Remember when that fancy bar was a bodega with nothing in it except for a few cans of Goya for decoration?" "Remember when that luxury building was the Gas Station (or the World, or Cuando, or the 5th Street Squat)?" "Remember when you could get a bowl of soup for a buck at Leshko?" Theater people can add to the old fogey list, "Remember when everybody was naked?"

I was put in mind of ye olde nudity at the opening night of CALIGULA MAXIMUS, currently playing until April 10th at La Mama. A line of people snaked out the Annex and as I got through the door, I realized part of the hold-up was Andre DeShields in an eye-popping orange zoot suit, a throng of admirers gazing at him adoringly, everyone else doing the New York thing of looking up around left right, anywhere but directly at The Wiz in the flesh. I did the New York thing too, said my magic words, got tickets, and made my way upstairs, where I was greeted by a stiltwalker and a bodybuilder with a facial tattoo that looked sort of a like a giant bruise. Going in, I suddenly felt transported to the theater I experienced as a teen in the 1980s. A topless hula hoop dancer yammered to audiences, as a girl with a huge blonde 'fro and lots of eye makeup wandered around in a tiny red tutu, and a big African-American guy cajoled the audience to buy peanuts and candy. It was totally carny, wild, Dionysian.

Halloween at Theater for the New City used to be like that. I remember the first Halloween I went to, back when TNC was on 2nd Avenue, I stumble into the Stanley just as a short play DYSLEXIA was starting on the teeniest stage I have ever seen. I am not kidding it was literally like 6 feet by 6 feet. As the ratty red curtain opened, Rome Neal and an actress from the Living Theater named Amber rolled out kathunk kathunk totally naked, flopping around in a vaguely sexual way, looking like elephant seals on that tiny stage. And then as they tumbled off, George Bartenieff tumbled on, playing their baby, who of course was naked. And then more naked people peered out, each teaching the (naked) baby something. And the (naked) baby gets dyslexia. And everybody (naked) squeezed together on this six by six stage and sang a slightly dissonant song about dyslexia ala Kurt Weill. It was amazing. And the nudity bit? Well, after about ten seconds, you stopped noticing entirely. But I do remember thinking, "Vicky, you certainly aren't in Queens anymore."

After about ten minutes of CALIGULA, I thought, "Vicky you certainly aren't in the 1980s anymore." What stands out to me about the whole gestalt of the 1980s is the political urgency that was intrinsic to the time - it was the last hurrah of 1960s people power - with the struggle for nuclear disarmament, housing rights, Tompkins Square Park, Tienanmen Square, Haiti, the end of Apartheid, the fall of the Berlin Wall.

CALIGULA begins with the promise of great revelations - fleshly and otherwise - and then exhausts the audience with an hour and a half of titillation and no climax. The Roman Emperor (Ryan Knowles) first appears to the whacka-whacka of 1970s soul on a giant golden cock that spews confetti, rhetorically asking why his acts of perversity are continually invoked in literature, theater and film. Director Alfred Preisser and writer Randy Weiner never get beneath the surface to really answer this question, basically averring that people like Caligula because people like sick shit. So we witness Caligula rip out his unborn baby from his sister's womb (played by the lovely aerialist Anya Sapozhnikova). We watch Caligula egg on four women to beat up various barbarian men and cut off their balls. We watch Caligula wrestle with Jesus. By this time, the hyped-up energy was getting tiresome and I was looking for some kind of aha moment, some denouement, some transformation, a climax please, all the frolicking was wearing me out. But Jesus made some sappy Biblical remarks and got kicked off the stage like the barbarians (with balls intact, however). And then Caligula decides there should be a Church of Caligula. The congregation gets the audience to join in a Gospel song and everyone (including Andre DeShields) ends up killing Caligula.

Preisser certainly has a way with choreography and the best thing in CALIGULA is the energetic dancing. It did seem odd to me that, though ostensibly set in Rome, with a very Caucasian Caligula, all the music and dance in this production is African-American. Don't get me wrong, I love soul, gospel and funk, and I'm aware that Preisser is fresh from a 10-year stint as Artistic Director of the Classical Theater of Harlem, but the ethnic specificity and the all-out fun of the music seems rather misplaced for this particular piece.

And then after all that dancing, all that nudity, and all that excess violence, the whole play nosedives into Caligula pondering why people didn't love him. Various performers in the ensemble respond with eye-rollingly limp insights like, "Because you had slaves!" or, "You can't force everyone to love you. That just makes people hate you."

Like the song says, is this all there is my friend? I am reminded of the 2004 blackout when I took to the streets with my friend Matthew, expecting a carnival like the one that hit New York during the blackout of the 1970s. Everyone was outside, bonfires were lit in trash cans in Tompkins Square, teenagers cavorting around. But when policemen came around with the command to put out the fires, the kids all in unison whined, "Not now! Not now!" Matt and I laughed at how juvenile they sounded, "Not now, Dad, we're having such a good time!" Whereas the retort twenty years ago was, "Pigs outta the park! Who's streets? OUR streets!"

Like those kids in 2004, CALIGULA fails to grapple with the deeper political implications that are right there in front of them. Making much of the spectacle of Rome, the play never dives into the real question of Caligula's perversity, which is really the perversity of absolute power. Yes, the mob rules in the end but the political insight that might come from this is completely lost with Caligula instead bemoaning that no one loved him. Failing to go any deeper than this, CALIGULA is only mildly titillating, revealing nothing more than a few bare breasts.