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Caligula Maximus

Ryan Knowles gives a dynamic peformance as the infamous Roman emperor in this raunchy extravaganza.

Ryan Knowles and company in Caligula Maximus
(© Lia Chang)
Free beer and porn magazines are given out as you enter La MaMa's Ellen Stewart Theatre to see Caligula Maximus, Alfred Preisser and Randy Weiner's raunchy circus extravaganza about the infamous Roman emperor. But while the show strives to create a party-like atmosphere, it pushes too hard for the effort to be completely successful.

A ringmaster by the name of Helicon (JerZ Short) welcomes the crowd, but it's soon made clear that he's not the one running the show. That honor belongs to Caligula (Ryan Knowles), who enters riding a giant golden phallus and takes control of the stage. Knowles has a dynamic presence, and an appropriately seedy charisma. He also has a deep baritone, which he utilizes to good effect, particularly in a late-in-the-show ballad.

The music within the production is primarily derived from existing rock n' roll songs with some possible additions (there's a live band, but no composer is credited). Caligula's theme song uses the tune from the Village People's "In the Navy," with some of the lyrics radically altered. For instance, it rhymes "masturbation" with "double penetration." This lack of subtlety is carried over into all aspects of the production, and ends up being more tiresome than shocking.

The piece focuses on the excesses and scandals that reportedly characterized Caligula's rule. He's shown here indulging in all forms of sexuality, from relations with his beautiful wife Caesonia (played by porn star Justine Joli), to homoerotic dalliances with Helicon, to incest with sister Drusilla (the acrobatic Anya Sapozhnikova), to bestiality with horse Incitatus (Tim Dax), the latter of whom he also makes head of the Roman senate.

The performance has a rather loose structure, incorporating aerial acts, gladiatorial bouts, songs, dances, and more. The circus acts fare best, and work well within Evan Collier's big-top style set. The dances (choreographed by Jessica Krueger, Angela Buccinni, and Charletta Rozzell) are largely uninspired, and often not well executed by the large cast.

As directed by Preisser, the show also faces some challenges in striking the right tone. There are several intentionally campy and humorous bits that are effective, or at the very least succeed in getting a cheap laugh. But there are also some darker segments -- including a rather grisly fate for Drusilla and her unborn child -- that should have more of a sense of danger.

The edgiest moment in the production comes when Caligula takes to the arena himself for a one-on-one match with none other than Jesus Christ (beatifically portrayed by Aaron Strand). While the latter's preferred weapons are "peace and love," and at one point he does indeed turn the other cheek, the battle eventually resorts to blows and the outcome results in a rather provocative statement from Caligula that sums up his views of religion.

The production owes an obvious debt to the musical Hair -- and not simply because co-author Weiner is the husband of the current Broadway revival's director, Diane Paulus. The program refers to various cast members within Caligula Maximus as "TRIBE," and the musical play culminates in a large dance party with numerous audience members intermingling with the cast. In an interesting twist, the presence of the audience onstage actually serves to further the (admittedly thin) plot, and leads directly into the show's denouement. However, the effectiveness of this is marred by a coda that follows, and which undercuts the dramatic impact of that moment.


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