nytheatre.com review by Matthew Trumbull
April 2, 2005
Despite playing the horniest man who ever ruled Rome, decked out in a costume that is down to one codpiece by 8:30, Andre De Shields’s presence as the Roman Emperor and title character in Classical Theatre of Harlem’s Caligula comprises far more than skin and shape. He looms powerfully as he struts amongst the audience, microphone in hand, seducing ladies, asking in a silky baritone which of them has made love with an animal. In this play that is part episodic biography, part cabaret, De Shields passionately rivets our focus with skills that he has honed over 35+ years as a theatre star. Such skills are what keeps his Emperor dangerous, wolfish, and sexy, for De Shields stokes the megalomaniacal fire in Caligula until it extinguishes with his final breath.
His self-love is ferociously charismatic, and we believe him when he warns that monotheistic religion is robbing us of opportunities to indulge in the senses, where life and power can be found. Seductively, he lets us feel important, us little people. He even tells us we are gods when we dance, drink, and fornicate. Jesus, on the other hand, preaches peace, love, and compassion, but doesn’t hand over much of a sense of power with his philosophy—Caligula opines that his is the better deal. After all, if everybody in Rome needs a one-god focal point, why not let it be him, a man of flesh and blood who loves to sin? It sounds a lot more fun. Sure, free love isn’t free if he has the power to demand it, but as the Emperor says, “Slavery is hot.”
A festive orgy party frames the evening, the last of Caligula’s notorious “entertainments.” Fearing warnings that the population and senate are increasingly malcontented by his narcissism, the Emperor desperately attempts to cram every conceivable indulgence into the night’s revelry, as an all-out final assault on the humility so en vogue with the masses. He especially galls them by naming his horse head of the Senate. Another animal he thrusts into esteem, so to speak, is the bonobo chimpanzee, mankind’s closest genetic relative amongst the apes. Though the bonobos do not roam beyond Africa’s Congo Basin, knowledge of their exploits have reached the Caligulan court, where their praises are sung—particularly for the chimps’ appetite for sexual variety in both pleasure and position.
Yet Caligula remains haunted by excesses that carry too far, such as his ultimate expression of “pure” love, knifing Drusilla, his sister and incestuous lover. Caligula later works himself into murderous fury while coaxing audience members onto the stage to dance in a “cosmic pool of love”; he knows that not everyone will do so, and therefore, it follows by his fraying logic, love him. When he begins to violently crack a whip at members of his own court, he starts an avalanche of resentment that culminates with his murder.
Alfred Preisser (CTH’s artistic director) and Randy Weiner have written this play with music as a vehicle for De Shields’s showmanship, and Preisser as director has surrounded him with a young supporting cast of Broadway-caliber singers and dancers. The opulent set and lighting, by Troy Hourie and Ben Stanton respectively, lend a perfect quasi-Vegas glitz to the evening. Special kudos must also be given to the designers of sequences that got applause for sheer spectacle: choreographer Angela Lewis for the party’s opening, Afro-rhythmic dance number; and fight choreographer Teel James Glenn for his wrestling scene, featuring a main card bout between Caligula and Jesus (Noshir Dalal).
Preisser, Weiner, and De Shields deftly use the cabaret format’s informality to give the show a dry hipster wit, much appreciated in these times when the zeitgeist’s insatiable craving for lurid history (gasp, was Lincoln gay?) has grown wearisome. The play is not rooted in a rigid time period or culture, and therefore professional wrestling matches between deity and dictator are fair and relevant game, as are references to modern moon science, DNA composition, and the story’s notoriously carnal 1979 film version. It is De Shields and his delivery, though, that truly keep the show racing and unpredictable, and he commands our attention thoroughly enough to make each new outlandishness a delight. Too savvy to rely solely on shock value, as a less-skilled performer might, he gives Emperor Caligula the moxie of a rock star, and we happily slide into our groupie roles.