Rafael De Mussa in Caligula
(© Richard Termine)
Rafael De Mussa in Caligula
(© Richard Termine)
Considered the most despotic of the Caesars, Caligula served deep-thinking Albert Camus as a handy candidate on whom to hang a play about the madness of political tyrants in the frightening pre-World War II build-up. And while the real-life Caligula was known to relish the theater, nowhere in Camus' play about ceaseless mayhem is there mention that one of the nasty man's favorite tortures -- besides poisoning his associates and installing their wives in brothels -- was murder by inept theatrical production. That, however, is what Horizon Theatre Rep almost achieves with its intermissionless, 105-minute mounting of Caligula -- presented in a recent David Greig translation -- at the Kirk Theatre at Theatre Row.

Cribbing in 1938 from the Roman historian Suetonius' biographical account of the diabolical man -- who reigned for only three years -- Camus pursued his evolving notions of life's absurdities by crafting this four-act drama, in which the emperor uses his belief that unhappiness is the irrevocable human condition. However, 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. Of the dozen supporting personages populating the stage, only Ben Gougeon as Caligula's appointed henchman Helicon, Romy Nordlinger as Caligula's predatory consort Caesonia, and, Quester D. Hannah as the leader of an eventual conspiracy suggest they might be able to cut the mustard in other circumstances.

Because of the nature of the motives behind Caligula's actions, the play is, by no means, easy to realize. Grieving over the death of his sister and partner in incest, Drusilla, and occasionally dolling himself up as Venus, the disoriented figure has come to believe one human action is no better or worse than any other. Once considered a relatively benign figure, Caligula has allowed his convictions about the pointlessness of existence to lead him into severely inappropriate existential choices -- the wrongheadedness of which he only comes to understand too late. Even if his philosophical dilemma is difficult to depict, it deserves a far better treatment than it receives in this misguided outing.