Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Caligula

GRADE: D+

By Albert Camus. Translated by David Greig. Dir. Rafael De Mussa. Horizon Theatre Rep at the Kirk Theatre. (CLOSED)

Looks like yours truly, reviewing the New York premiere of David Greig's translation of Camus' 1938 play, is the outlier among the critics weighing in so far, who are much harsher on director Rafael De Mussa's mistakes—starting with casting himself in the lead, which I agree is a huge problem—and on David Greig's translation, which I like but most others deplore. I'm not even sure I'd get a quorum if I proposed that Camus' brilliant, despairing play deserves a truly great Off-Broadway production in other hands. C'est la vie.


Time Out NY B
(Rob Weinert-Kendt) De Mussa’s distracting performance is the only seriously wrong note in this Horizon Theatre Rep production, which otherwise makes a lovely and compelling case for Camus’s cold-burning fervor and essential tragic vision. As the ruler’s henchman and mistress, respectively, Ben Gougeon and Romy Nordlinger expertly trace an arc from sickened complicity to a kind of bitter wisdom—an awakening Camus demands of us all.

Nytheatre.com C
(Martin Denton) Director Rafael De Mussa...has opted to present the play without intermission, which makes for more than two uninterrupted hours of escalating brutality—a lot to ask of an audience...This chorus of patricians is portrayed by actors of great ethnic diversity (an admirable casting decision), but almost all are betrayed onstage by their relative inexperience...Unfortunately, the play is not as well-served by this revival as it might be.

New Theatre Corps C-
(Jason Fitzgerald) It is to Camus’s credit that his script, in the New York premiere of David Grieg’s taut translation, manages to sizzle despite an inept production by Horizon Theatre Rep...Thankfully, director Rafael de Mussa (who plays Caligula) avoids a George W. Bush parallel, putting his actors in contemporary dress but leaving the whole production in an unspecified time and place...The challenge of the play is to make the audience feel both the terror of the emperor’s subjects and the pity the man himself deserves. This production achieves neither.

NY Times D
(Neil Genzlinger) This creaky play, written by Albert Camus in 1938, could still generate sparks in the hands of an actor who attacked the main role with the same tightly wound ferocity that [James] Caan gave to Sonny Corleone. Mr. De Mussa, alas, is not remotely Mr. Caan, one of many things that make this production of Caligula by Horizon Theater Rep a slog. Another: It’s full of untested actors of uneven skill. Another: The set features a huge table in the center of the stage that acts as a sort of black hole, preventing any meaningful action in the prime viewing spot.

CurtainUp D
(Jenny Sandman) Inexplicably, Horizon Theatre Rep's production is flat and amateurish—characterized by declamatory gestures, slow timing, and blocking in straight lines, Last Supper-style, on either side of a very long dining table. Director Rafael de Mussa, who also plays Caligula, should know better than to divide his energies like that. His performance suffers for it. Though his acting and directorial instincts are correct, he seemed too distracted to really inhabit the character. The rest of the cast shares the same fate, never cohering as an ensemble and never seeming comfortable in their individual roles. It doesn't help that David Greig's translation is dated and stiff.

Backstage D-
(Robert Windeler) The cast of 13 appropriately consists of mostly very young actors, as Caligula was only 24 on his accession, and his coterie was of an age. A lack of experience is all too evident in most, but a far more serious failing is that the majority of these actors seem to have opaque accents of one kind or another, and they fail to enunciate or project properly. A couple of them even sound as if they have actual speech impediments. Unfortunately, De Mussa is not immune to any of these problems...David Greig's translation is accessible but flat.

Theatermania D-
(David Finkle) Horizon artistic director Rafael De Mussa, who also happens to be the director and star of the show, falls far short of the complex script's subtle and daunting demands in every area. Worse still, De Mussa surrounds himself with actors even less stage-ready than he is--in what could be seen as a further imitation of Caligula's apparent penchant to operate among an assembly of yes-men...Even if his philosophical dilemma is difficult to depict, it deserves a far better treatment than it receives in this misguided outing.

Offoffonline
(Maura O'Brien) t is not faint praise to say that Horizon Theater Rep’s production of Caligula (by Albert Camus) is better than one might expect. Phrased in almost entirely philosophical terms, Camus’s script, translated by David Greig, is “set in an unspecified country during the twentieth century” and features a self-obsessed ruler named Caligula. Camus is obviously indebted to the specific legacy of Gaius Julius Caesar’s extravagant madness. Like the real-life Caligula, director and star Rafael De Mussa’s ambitions are large, and it is not surprising that he falls short. However, Caligula’s actions make for a literally spectacular show, at times as gruesome and uncomfortable as a gladiatorial match. The twisted ironies—perversions that become normal through repetition—provide the humor that makes the show an entertaining, if ponderous, diversion.

Taking inspiration from the strange history of Caligula’s reign, Camus’s play gives an explanation for his random acts of madness. After several years of respectable reign, Caligula began to exhibit the bizarre capriciousness for which he is remembered, in history and art. Among some of the more fantastic claims: that he treated his horse as consul; proclaimed himself Venus; and executed according to the nonjudgmental laws of logic. For example, when Caligula was reported to have fallen ill, a patrician offered to give his life for the improvement of the emperor’s health. Upon his recovery, Caligula took it. This sort of reasoning gives the play its shape and its voice.


Rafael De Mussa and Romy Nordinger
Photo Credit:Richard Termine
Delighting in Caligula’s diabolical mania with a relish similar to that of Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, De Mussa manages an ironically whimsical gravity. His deadliness is clear, but also desperately funny. The murderous acts are so extreme that there is no appropriate reaction—but it’s hard not to laugh at the absurdity.

However, because Caligula’s actions are based on a dogged commitment to the logical, each grotesque act is equally terrible. The plot, therefore, neither advances nor picks up speed. There are moments of tension, but overall it can be disappointingly dull. When nothing makes sense, everything makes sense—the play becomes so caught up in its twisted logic that everything is a bit too straight. As Caligula becomes depressed, claiming: “everything comes to the same thing. A little sooner, a little later,” the audience experiences a corresponding letdown.


Rafael De Mussa
Photo Credit:Richard Termine
If the other actors were as charismatic and energetic as De Mussa, perhaps the lack of tension would be a less glaring flaw. As it is, there is a general greenness and discomfort among the actors portraying the aristocracy. When they are plotting, Camus’s words feel about as dull and heavy as a Roman column. Among the other stars orbiting Caligula’s planet, Romy Nordinger as his wife, Caesonia, and Ben Gougeon as his henchman, Helicon, stand out for their performances. Still, there is no character to identify or sympathize with, just a powerful overarching concept.

The set likewise contributes to the show’s stagnancy. There is only so much room for the actors to move and interact when a table dominates center stage. This table is occasionally used to clever effect: to establish hierarchy, to show disrespect, to stand between two dueling personalities; however, it is just an object and in the end it takes up a lot of space that might be put to better use.

The table is part of a festive set that uses more modern examples of lavishness to echo the excesses of Rome. Little is done to explain or emphasize the particular music, wardrobe or set choices, but there is little about this interpretation that adds insight to a text that seems to prefer the power of the word above all else.

In the end it is Camus’s observations and wit, as well as Caligula’s fascinating story that provide the show’s highlights. However, though the writing is precise and perfect as a logically reasoned construction, the play’s failings are mostly due to the fact that the logic of absolute power is self-sustaining and fatalistically circular. When Caligula asks: “what god could fill a lake so deep?” the ensuing silence is profound. Certainly the gods of theater are not up to the task. Though he grasps at meaning, Caligula is left blinking at the void, with no more significance than when the curtain lifted. The theory of absolutes is complete, but at the cost of story and character.

Village Voice F
(Alexis Soloski) Uniquely terrible...To say that celebrated Scottish playwright David Greig phoned in his translation is to afford him too much credit. Perhaps he composed it using predictive text messaging: The script teams with clich├ęs like "Nature is a great healer" and "We must keep up appearances."

TONY B 10; Nytheatre C 7; New Theatre Corps C- 6; CU D 4; NYT D 4; BS D- 3; TM D- 3; Voice F 1; TOTAL: 35 / 8 = 4.38 (D)

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