As directed by the intrepid Emilie Whelan and presented by the ingenious Cripple Creek Theatre, Albert Camus’ thorny play “Caligula” proves to be a fantastic, surrealistic experience.
Along with the likes Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, Camus forged the mid-20th century absurdist movement, a form of playwriting that depicts life as ultimately meaningless. Born with the full awareness of the Holocaust and the horrors of war, absurdism’s point of view is understandably bleak.
Camus is more noteworthy for his novels (“The Stranger”) and his philosophical essays than his plays, which tend to be more theatrical than dramatic and more concerned with ideas than with real people.
After fighting with the French Resistance, at 25 Camus began work on “Caligula,” a nihilistic tale about a man driven by existential despair to fanatical destruction.
The young emperor, Caligula (Ian Hoch) devastated by the death of his incestuously beloved sister, has come to a crazed clarity about the world: Since life is essentially meaningless, one action isn’t any better or worse than any other!
Consequently, he resolves to be free of emotion and to indulge his every passing whim conducting a mad reign of terror — arbitrarily killing patricians, raping their wives, even impersonating the goddess Venus.
Left to itself, Camus’ play is a stiff, declamatory work. The scenes are often static and confuse more than enlighten. But in the gifted hands of the Cripple Creek ensemble, this marvelous experience is an unnerving feast of visual and visceral dissonance.
Whelan maintains a mesmerizing air of insane childishness throughout. Every moment is exceptionally well-crafted. There are flashes of gallows humor and savage horror, all expertly executed without a hint of pretension or vulgarity.
The bizarre evening opens with a musician crawling out from a manhole cover. Far off is the evocative song of a burlesque singer (Angie Z), who could very well personify the moon hauntingly echoes. Strange surprises commence from the get-go and never let up.
Wild-eyed with his mop of tempestuous hair sticking straight up, Hoch delivers a charismatic, multifaceted performance — part impetuous schoolboy, part caged animal — as the dotty sociopath with a deadly logic to his deeds.
Radiating a devilish concentration, Evan Spigelman fascinates as Caesonia, Caligula’s predatory mistress. Jessica Lozano brings great passion to the sensitive poet Scipio, who vainly tries to reason with the psychopathic tyrant.
As Cherea, the most rational of the Roman senators and the leader of the eventual conspiracy against Caligula, Clint Johnson forcefully counterpoints the neurotic dictator’s insane logic. Pamela D. Roberts grows increasingly terrifying as Helicon, Caligula’s acolyte and designated henchman.
Surrealistic theater is a tricky thing to appreciate. It deliberately sets out to disorient the audience. There are no explanatory speeches with which to argue or debate.
For many theatergoers, the allure of surrealism intoxicates, but be prepared to use both sides of your brain. In the disturbing aftershock of strangeness, truth is communicated intuitively, not logically.
Surrealism thrives on an atmosphere that mystifies. And Whelan’s team of designers brilliantly exceed the call.
Kevin Sheehan’s near-continuous and invaluable sound design vividly incorporates music and song; it's inseparable from Tucker Fuller’s pulsating compositions dynamically performed by percussionist Fiona Digney and harpist Luke Brechtelsbauer.
Adam Tourek’s elongated runway set makes excellent use of Castillo Blanco’s garage space (where the stored Krewe of Bacchus floats hover, ghostlike) abetted by Joshua Courtney’s brave and transformative lighting design.
Despite today’s headlines consumed with rulers with absolute power who feel above any moral law, “Caligula,” is not really a political play as much as it is a daring immersion into the hypnotic Theater of the Absurd.
Admission is free. A donation envelope is included in the program. Be generous. It’s a rare theater company that can produce this type of theater so splendidly.
(Bruce Burgun is a retired theater professor from Indiana University and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.)
WHEN: Through Aug. 27
WHERE: Castillo Blanco Art Studios, 4321 St. Claude Ave.