Theater of the absurd

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.

Hopefully, Our Endeavors will have the fortitude and resources to push on with a third production, and may I recommend reuniting as many of these actors as possible? Dalton James draws liberally from both bottomless wells inside him--childlike sincerity and scary rage--and adds a playfulness to the king's insanity that earned suitably uncomfortable but much-needed laughs. A peroxided Mark Farr commands a seething mob with crisp, eloquent authority, all the more surprising for his little-boy looks. David Goodwin, a playwright who made an impressive stab at philosophical musings on the perception of reality in his own script Exposure, carries out his master's nefarious commands with weaselly sensuality. Undermain member Laurel Hoitsma teeters on the edge of parody with her heaving cleavage and teased hair, but she has the least rounded of the major roles: French existentialists weren't famous for their feminism. Caligula lets them all shine in disjointed moments, but if this quartet were corralled for a more earthbound script and a more focussed production, their unique talents would harmonize into some truly beautiful theater.

Caligula, or The Meaning of Death runs through April 26. Call (972) 355-2879.

Cora Cardona, artistic director of Teatro Dallas, can't help but veer into politics while discussing The Incredible and Sad Story of the Candid Erendira and Her Soulless Grandmother, even though the play is, by her own definition, "just a fairy tale."

"There are no political words in it," Cardona says of this U.S. premiere, her own English translation of Chilean playwright Jorge Diaz's adaptation of a story by literary lion Gabriel Garcia Marquez. "But just like in Cinderella, I can't help but see the story of imperialism and revolt. Cinderella is an indentured servant within her own house; she has revolutionaries in the form of mice and a fairy godmother, to set her free. When I tell people about my interpretation, they always say: 'What?'"

Cardona sees parallels between that fairy tale and The Candid Erendira and Her Soulless Grandmother, which she is directing. The Diaz adaptation of Marquez's magical realist tale finds a 13-year-old girl (Susanna Guzman) who slaves as a prostitute to support her cruel grandmother (Christie Vela). On a long journey through the desert, the two of them meet a surrealistic sideshow of characters both dangerous and sympathetic, one of whom (Brian Matthews) she falls in love with.

"This play has been performed once in New York, and my daughter saw it in Costa Rica, adapted to a Cuban perspective," Cardona says. "But both were overtly political shows, and both were in Spanish. Translating the script wasn't too difficult, even Marquez's poetic passages. His images are very simple; they cross cultural lines. With some Marquez, though, he starts out with one thought and wanders into a million others in the same breath. That's the Arabic influence on the Spanish language."

The Candid Erendira and Her Soulless Grandmother is not, she's aware, what some multiculturalists expect from a self-described "Latino theater."

"Many Anglos and Latinos have certain expectations of what we should do," she says. "They expect us to serve Doritos and Cheech and Chong. Or they want me to be up there performing mariachi. So sometimes they're disappointed. But if you try and please everybody, something's lost in the process."

The Incredible and Sad Story of the Candid Erendira and Her Soulless Grandmother opens Friday, April 17 and runs through May 16. Call 741-1135.

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Jimmy Fowler

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