Theater of the absurd

Camus' Caligula is too much hot air and not enough heat

The caprice of totalitarianism burdened the thoughts of a 32-year-old Albert Camus when, in 1945, he staged a theatrical meditation called Caligula, or The Meaning of Death. He hid out while the Nazis plundered France, writing inflammatory articles for the Resistance and nurturing his philosophy of the absurd that would snag him a Nobel Prize 12 years later.

Moral outrage against the German regime inspired a number of great artists, but by the time Hitler rose from the German electorate and began stomping across the continent like Godzilla, Camus had long articulated his anti-fascist passion--thanks to the theater. He was an actor-director in a lefty theatrical collective called Theatre du Travail from 1936 to 1939, which provided him the opportunity to hone his curious breed of compassionate existentialism that would lead to bitter public attacks from Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvior during the '50s. The gist of their criticisms: Camus was a sentimentalist, unconcerned with politics and unmoved by a genuine desire for political reform.

None of Camus' numerous plays declare his dichotomous, scathing endorsement of human life more resoundingly than Caligula, or The Meaning of Death, given what's probably a Texas premiere, and very possibly a Southwest premiere by Our Endeavors, a fledgling theater troupe whose founding artists, Patti Kirkpatrick and Scott Osborne, have worked extensively with the Undermain, Theatre Three, and 11th Street Theater Project. How could Camus simultaneously insist that life was inherently absurd yet precious at the same time? The decision to confront the pointlessness head-on, and salvage meaning with principles and ethical vision, he insisted, was an imperative for anyone who wanted to escape from the existential mire that Sartre so chillingly described in No Exit.

Our Endeavors made a brave choice in staging an obscure work by a French existentialist, and they've assembled a smashingly talented crew of Dallas actors to deliver this meditation on how the individual must fight state-sponsored oppression. Yet for a good part of its two and a half hours, Caligula spins its squeaky philosophical wheels, leaving the actors to drown out the sound with passionate readings of material that is curiously dispassionate. They do a good job most of the time, occasionally even a great one. There are long conversations between characters that really catch fire, allowing audiences to warm their hands over the reminder that what these people are rhapsodizing about is the very question of human insignificance in a cold and infinite universe. But when the material itself veers into oblique and conceptual hairsplitting, the actors attempt to turn an academic lecture into grand melodrama.

The script begins near the end of the reign of mad Roman emperor Caligula (Dalton James), whose willy-nilly executions, rape for sport, and commands for his subjects to release their worldly possessions to him has, inevitably, stirred an assassination plot among his courtiers. Caligula is flattered (and sexually relieved) by both his busty mistress Caesonia (Laurel Hoitsma) and his wiry henchman Hellicon (David Goodwin), even in his continuing pursuit of some unachievable goals: cheating death, becoming a god, owning the moon. Caligula has confused power with freedom, and exercises his "freedom" to torment those around him as proof that because they are not powerful, they are not free, and therefore their lives are meaningless.

There are complicating factors in the form of two courtiers to whom Caligula finds himself drawn for their honesty and eloquence, respectively. Cherea (Mark Farr), a quietly courageous bookworm, isn't scared of Caligula's lethal tirades because he has long ago chosen to live his life in the principled, modest pursuit of knowledge: Death is not the worst thing in the world for a man who's gained scholarly perspective. Meanwhile, Scipio (newcomer Antwoine Kennedy), a young poet whose father has been killed by Caligula, finds beauty in the simple things that the crazed emperor is doomed to overlook.

Executive producer Pati Kirkpatrick claims that she and director Scott Osborne have chosen a consciously "sensationalistic" approach to this intellectualized account of the Roman emperor Caligula, whose homicidal decrees and perverse tests of loyalty of his subjects certainly earn the play any over-the-top interpretation a director might want to give it. Yet to my surprise, the actors don't really ham it up. Cautiousness is a wise strategy when depicting the reign of one of the craziest, horniest, most bloodthirsty tyrants in human history. How to depict the Caligulan government wallowing in its own decadence without instructing the actors to wallow in their characters' decadence is a difficult trick, and Osborne and his cast achieve it impressively. Trouble is, when you subtract the titillation factor from an existentialist treatment of an infamous historical subject, you're left with too much airy existentialism. There is an implied rape in this play, and a mostly hinted-at flirtation between Caligula and Hellicon. I'm going to make a somewhat outrageous claim here and say Caligula would have benefited from a more gratuitous approach. I wanted to actually see the rape, and be horrified by it so I could anchor my feelings more. I wanted to see Caligula get it on with Hellicon with the same violent passion he reserves for Caesonia, so I could witness his hostile lust in its full depth and breadth. This cast is accomplished enough, and otherwise tempered in their overall performances, to justify such truly "sensationalistic" flourishes.

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