Volume 22, Number 43 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | March 5 - 11, 2010

Written by Alfred Preisser and Randy Weiner
Directed by Alfred Preisser
March 12th through April 10th
At La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre (66 East 4th Street)
For tickets, call 212-475-7710
Visit www.lamama.org 

Photo by Lia Chang

The perversely theatrical cast of “Caligula Maximus”

Not your Camus’ ‘Caligula’
La MaMa delivers ‘cockeyed daredevil history lesson’


Stop a man on the street, any man — or any woman, and ask: “What do you know about Caligula?”The answer, if any, will probably be along the lines of: “Well, there was this movie, and didn’t he make his horse the ruler of the Roman Empire or something?” 

Close, but not quite. There is indeed the (deliberately) notorious 1979 all-star movie (John Gielgud! Peter O’Toole!, Helen Mirren! Malcolm McDowell!) backed and co-directed by Penthouse magazine publisher Bob Guccione; but the ruler of the Roman empire was of course Caligula himself, and he only had his horse, Incitatus — one of his many lovers — made a Roman senator, not the overlord of the whole shebang.

Listen to this, for a taste of Alfred Preisser and Randy Weiner’s “Caligula Maximus”:

Your know me as a man
Who has sex with children, animals, and men. WHY?
Because I can? NO!
You don’t have to be demigod master of the universe for that…
There is no inherent greatness in fucking a sheep.
Farm boys do it every day… 

To say Caligula is no more subversive and grandiose
Than your standard skinflick upsets me
And manifests the lack of imagination
That is the tragic flaw of Western Civilization today!                  
And this:

Suetonius killed me off like a sacrificial lamb at 29 years of age.
Malcolm McDowell disowned me in the Penthouse pornocreation.
Gore Vidal, you don’t get me.
Bob Guccione, you don’t know me.
Camus turned me into a term paper, and
Bertiolt Brecht achieved the impossible,
Making ME forgettable… 

Co-playwrights Preisser (who also directs it) and Weiner are determined to make the Emperor Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (born AD 12, assassinated AD 41) unforgettable. They’re endeavoring to do it through Caligula’s own favorite means of artistic expression: music, dance, poetry, prose, declamation, high spirits, high energy, and a suspension wire or two. One character, Caligula’s sister Drusilla (played by an actress mononamed Anya) “never touches the ground at any time through the whole show,” says Preisser.

Their cockeyed daredevil history lesson, on La MaMa’s mainstage Ellen Stewart Theatre through April 3, is a challenging time-binding potpourri of facts from Suetonius’s “Lives of the Twelve Caesars” intermingled with a host of half-heard fragments or overtones of“Each man kills the thing he loves” “We are to the gods as flies to wanton boys,” etc., etc., all the way to (see above) “Because I can,” which presses on the ear in the voice of another, more recent, enjoyment-prone head of state.

An even more immediate sign of the times is Caligula’s response to a stuffed-shirt moralist who has thundered: “To name a horse as head of the Senate is ridiculous, arbitrary, irrational behavior.” 

“On the contrary,” declares the playboy emperor, “it is highly rational behavior and I shall prove it….Postulate the first: Living beings who strap dynamite to their chests and blow themselves up on public transportation are insane. Would you agree with my postulate?”

You can’t get much more contemporary than that…Preisser says the line came out of anger — his own anger at religious fundamentalists and “politicians, mainly Republicans, who are ‘doing God’s work.’ ”

Backing all the above is a four-piece rock band putting forth everything from hard rock to sentimental Broadway-type feel-good music.

Preisser says he doesn’t know when he got hipped on Caligula.

Who, says Preisser, “used to give circus-like entertainments, thought of himself as a great actor, singer, dancer, poet, and ordered all the heads on all the busts in Rome to be replaced with likenesses of his wife, Caesonia. He had delusions of being God” — and indeed, in this play, physically (if uselessly) outwrestles Jesus, among others.

An earlier Preisser/Weiner version of “Caligula Maximus” starred the greatly gifted actor/dancer Andre De Shields at the Harlem School of the Arts, 645 St. Nicholas Avenue, where then acting teacher Preisser — a classicist if there ever was one (and Weiner is the other one) — was presently to launch what would in short order become the highly regarded Classical Theatre of Harlem.

De Shields and Melvin Van Peebles are two of Preisser’s leading actors. Preisser and Van Peebles are just back from Paris, where, at the Song of the Heart Festival, they put on an acclaimed two-week stage version of Van Peebles’s 1971 underground film, “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” Preisser has also directed three different productions of Van Peebles’s “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death,”De Shields was the star of the recent smash production at the Harold Clurman on Theater Row of Preisser and Weiner’s “Archbishop Supreme Tartuffe.”

“At first,” says Preisser, “ I thought I’d just do the Camus ‘Caligula,’ — but when I read it I realized it was not really what I had in mind. Caligula must be more fun than this. Randy and I have been working on ‘Caligula’ since 2004. The La MaMa production has a reconfigured circus-based script.”

Ellen Stewart always likes to have a lot of people on stage, and this show has 27 — headed by Ryan Knowles as Caligula; Jerzy Short as Helicon, the ring master; Anya as sister Drusila; Luqman Brown as Sulla, the peanut vendor who prophesies the death of Caligula; and — hold your breath — onetime Penthouse Pet and current porn star Justine Joli as wife Caesonia.

“She specializes in girl-on-girl and she’s just gorgeous,” says Preisser.

He and Weiner first met back in the late 90s, when Preisser had what was called The Ground Floor Theater (on the Lower East Side’s Suffolk Street), and Weiner came to him with “Whore Dervishes” — his play based on John Ford’s Restoration chiller, “ ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore.”

Alfred Preisser was born (February 14, 1963p) and raised near the Canadian border in upstate New York. He went to the small but good College of St. Rose in Albany, where someone put a bug in his ear about acting school at Circle-in-the-Square. Caligula wouldn’t have bothered about it, but Alfred Preisser did. And the only horses he knows are attached to carriages on Central Park South.


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