The Emperor Reigns Absolutely in 'Caligula'

Alexander Strain (with Kathleen Akerley) in Washington Shakespeare's revival.
Alexander Strain (with Kathleen Akerley) in Washington Shakespeare's revival. (By Ray Gniewek -- Washington Shakespeare Company)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 18, 2007

With a title like "Caligula," you're expecting heads to roll. The name of the third Roman emperor is synonymous with barking-mad depravity, of a magnitude that conjures wild acts of sadism and orgies of blood.

He might seem an odd choice of subject for the great 20th-century existential writer Albert Camus. But the surprise in Washington Shakespeare Company's pithy and vibrant revival of Camus' rarely seen 1945 drama is that rolling noggins aren't as pivotal to the experience as what is percolating so excitingly in Caligula's.

Camus' Caligula -- played with sumptuous vitality by Alexander Strain -- is not merely a monstrous psycho. (History records the real Caligula as, among other things, having slaughtered his allies and declared himself a god.) Here, however, in the context of Camus' nihilism, he's constructed as an avatar of a desolate kind of common sense: The true rationalist, "Caligula" posits, is the man who embraces the incontrovertible futility of life.

"Freedom has no boundaries anymore!" Strain's Caligula gleefully decrees. "I am going to give this new century the gift of meaninglessness."

So if life has no meaning, neither does death, a philosophy that launches a chilling reign of terror. Although a 13-member cast is compellingly deployed by director Christopher Henley on the steps and rounded platforms of Andrew Berry's versatile, vaguely classical set, the production frequently feels like a one-man show. That is because "Caligula" gives its fragmenting antihero all the space and time he requires to indulge his appetites and purge his demons and otherwise act on a powerful belief: that nothing matters.

Or rather, that this is how things come to seem when an absolute ruler deems them so.

In the production at Clark Street Playhouse, the director advances the idea of Caligula being all that matters. Henley has invented for this version of David Greig's witty translation a few new characters, the most intriguing of them a "shadow" Caligula (Evan Crump), who springs from the emperor's mirror. It's a cool idea, because slender, blond Crump, dressed in white, is uncannily made to look like a photo-negative copy of slender, dark-haired Strain, dressed in black tee and jeans.

The Shadow seems to be a manifestation not only of Caligula's vanity, but also of the division in his nature -- the less brutal aspects that might have withered in him after the death of his sister (and sexual playmate) Drusilla, and the part of him that his concubine, Caesonia (Rahaleh Nassri), ever so gingerly tries to coax back out. Henley, too, adds the role of the dead Drusilla (Heather Haney). She's both the narrator here -- announcing each scene in French -- and, whether singing or reciting poetry or playing the violin, the omniscient representative of art: a meaning-bestowing force eternally out of Caligula's control.

The only newly invented character Henley fails to fully integrate here is Camus himself. Played by Kathleen Akerley -- who also portrays another writer in the piece, the Roman dissident Cherea -- Camus greets us as a prologuist of sorts, in the Playhouse lobby. Yes, this adds a layer of theatricality, but it also dilutes some of the production's initial energy (and complicates the process of getting to a seat).

The play tracks an existential anguish in Caligula that is turned biliously on his subjects. Some degree of the bile aimed at the herd of supplicating Roman patricians radiates toxic irony. After a politician tells the emperor that restoring the treasury must be his top concern, Caligula soberly agrees -- and then issues orders that "as the need for cash arises, we execute people randomly and we take their money."

That was not where the adviser thought his suggestion was headed, but as Caligula points out with caustic logic: "If the treasury is to be priority number one, then human life has to be priority number two." Once the audience clicks in to how Caligula's mind works, it also quickly gleans that there can be a lot of dramatic weight in nothingness.

Strain plays the strings of Caligula's narcissism with a fine ear for the scales of lucidity and lunacy. The actor, too, bears a passing resemblance to Zach Braff, and like the madcap Braff, there's a lightness even in the dark. This quality is useful in portraying a heavy such as Caligula, for you're never far from delight, from the sense of one forever entertaining some private (if gruesome) joke.

However, this "Caligula" is not consistently able to convey the menace the man represents. Sometimes, in the scenes where the patricians alternately plot and fret, someone forgets to inject some electricity. And you might expect, too, the close aides and bedmates of a tyrant this erratic to be a bit warier than they are, in and out of his presence.

It's gratifying, nevertheless, for a young actor of Strain's bearing and vocal dexterity to get to immerse himself in so eccentric and challenging a part. This is why in your visit to Caligula's terrorized Rome, you're in bloody good hands.

Caligula, by Albert Camus, translated by David Greig. Directed by Christopher Henley. Lighting, Robert Brown; costumes, Emily Dere; sound, Erik Trester. With Abby Wood, Jay Hardee, Francisco Reinoso, Parker Dixon, Brian Crane, Frank Britton, Theo Hadjimichael, Kim Curtis. About 2 hours 5 minutes. Through Nov. 11 at Clark Street Playhouse, 601 S. Clark St., Arlington. Call 800-494-8497 or visit

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