Anthony J. Piccione
New York Theatre Critic
During the time of ancient Rome, there was a cruel and mentally unstable ruler who dominated the land known as Caligula. In recent years, writers and commentators at various publications – such as the New York Times and the Guardian – have revisited the history surrounding Caligula’s erratic behavior and actions as leader of Rome, for the sake of providing a historical parallel to the chaotic behavior of President Donald Trump and his administration. So perhaps it shouldn’t be too shocking that, in 2018, Medicine Show Theatre would choose to present the story of this ancient historical figure, as its latest production this September.
The press release describes the title character as “a wild, unfettered leader of Shakespearean dimension”, and indeed, the language of the play itself – originally written by French writer and philosopher Albert Camus – does have a certain Shakespearean flare to it, even if it doesn’t always come across as poetic as the Bard. Retranslated from the original French text by Chris Brandt, it does indeed seem that the people at MST were aiming to achieve precisely that sort of Shakespearean tone with this show, a goal which is undoubtedly ambitious and admirable.
Under the direction of Mark J. Dempsey, the play is brought to life is brought to life in a manner that is both minimalistic while still highly theatrical, emphasizing the dramatic performances of these characters over set and lighting design. (Although certain makeup-related special effects do prove to be a vital aspect of the production.) The cast - consisting of Demetrius Blocker, Chris Cunningham, David Elyha, Janine Georgette, Richard Keyser, Alex Miskin, Samuel Muniz, Mario Peguero, Joe Rivera, Diana Westphal, and Perri Yaniv – brings the characters to life with all the melodramatic energy that you’d expect from such a play about the reign and downfall of such a domineering, larger than life figure in history.
Some scenes in the play drag on, at times, and not all of the humor seemed to land with audiences, along the way. However, if there’s anything about the production that stands out, it’s the dark and bloody climax of the play, which was performed and directed flawlessly. The overall play is not without its flaws, but it’s certainly not hard to find the historical parallels between then and now, if you look close enough, and the performances and special effects also help with making this production memorable and worth seeing. There are still a few more performances left of this show, so consider checking it out while you can, and decide for yourself.
“Caligula” runs at Medicine Show Theatre from September 13th to October 14th. For more information, please visit www.medicineshowtheatre.org.