Every era has its tyrants. We’ve got Kim Jong-un. Not long ago, there was Idi Amin and Radovan Karadzic. When Albert Camus wrote Caligula about the crazed Roman emperor, the playwright was living in Nazi-occupied Paris, ruled by Adolf Hitler. Under these regimes, the despots ultimately brought destruction on their own people. That absurdity is the premise of Camus’ play, presented in a powerful and terrifying performance at Castillo Blanco Art Studios by Cripple Creek Theatre Company.
[jump] As emperor, Caligula (Ian Hoch) has been artistic, appreciative of literature and an advocate for justice, before the untimely death of his sister Drusilla, with whom he had an incestuous relationship. He disappears from the palace for three days and is seen by peasants running through a thunderstorm. He returns disheveled and acts deranged. One of the patricians says Caligula had been the perfect emperor, “scrupulous and inexperienced,” thus allowing the patricians to rule. The court had ignored the incest, “but to destroy Rome because (Drusilla) is dead, that oversteps the boundaries,” one patrician says.
Caligula now wants the moon, precisely because he can’t have it. “This world, as it is constituted, is not bearable,” Caligula says. “Therefore I have need of the moon, or of happiness, or immortality, of something which is demented perhaps but which is not of this world.” He is insatiable.
Thenceforth, Caligula commands torture, murder and starvation of his subjects. When a high official mentions the importance of the treasury, he comes up with a two-pronged plan. Parents must disinherit their children, changing their wills to benefit the state, and patrician wives should work in brothels. Caligula distrusts and condemns intellectuals and artists who question his reasoning.
“If the treasury is of paramount importance, then human life has none,” Caligula calculates.
Hoch careens around an elongated stage bordered by a low fence that makes it look like a boxing ring. He wears a flowing, glittery teal cloak and undergarments and flails his arms while pontificating. Caesonia (Evan Spigelman), his bald mistress, tries to console and reason with him, saying his desire to be like a god is “lunacy.”
Caligula demands complete loyalty from his subjects, but insults and punishes them and forces them to don red neckties. “Without doubt, this isn’t the first time that, among us, a man has command of an unlimited power,” says Cherea (Clint Johnson). “But it’s the first time that he uses it without constraints - as far as to deny the existence of mankind and the world.”
In the most chilling scene, donning a wreath, Caligula sings “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” The poet Scipio courageously argues with Caligula, but is dragged away for execution.
Hoch’s fascinating performance is complemented by an excellent supporting cast. Dramatic tension never lags. The genius of Camus’ amazing script, adapted by Andrew Vaught, is that its message is timeless and universal. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
“The impossible is all I want,” Caligula says.
The show features strange, haunting music by harpist Luke Brechtelsbauer, percussionist Fiona Digney with singers Angie Z and April Louise.
Aug. 18-20, 25-27
8 p.m. Friday-Sunday
Castillo Blanco Art Studios, 4321 St. Claude Ave.