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Off-Campus Caligula Reconsiders Madness

Photo courtesy of Luke Henderson

Last night, Bwog’s resident Midtown Maven Hope Silberstein made it all the way to 43rd Street to see a preview production of Caligula, directed by Ittai Orr, CC ’12—read on to find out if the trek was worth it. The showtimes are today, March 30, at 8 pm and March 31 at 3 pm and 8 pm. The theater is located at 300 W. 43rd Street (off of 8th Ave) on the 4th floor in The Little Times Square Theatre.

What would you say to someone who asked you for the moon? In Caligula by Albert Camus, we enter a world where to deny that request has grave repercussions, where the impossible has to become possible.

This play about the Roman emperor begins with the death of Drusilla, Caligula’s sister and lover. This event causes him to realize that “men die, and they are not happy.” This cheery sentiment incites the emperor to impart meaninglessness to every aspect of life, through a series of arbitrary executions and laws that become increasingly ridiculous and cruel.

But don’t see this play simply for its plot. What comes to mind at the mention of Camus are often words like existentialist, absurdist, and perhaps philosophical, and in this vein Caligula will not disappoint. We jump from comic to tragic to absurd and back to comic at a frenetic pace. Not only do we question the characters’ motives and feelings, but the play’s genre as well. The tyrannical (but is he a tyrant?) Roman emperor descends into madness (but is it madness?), and the intimacy of the black box theater adds to the claustrophobia and terror that Camus meant to tap into when he wrote this play after World War II.

Another reason to see this arresting show is the fact that it was translated into English by the play’s director, Ittai Orr, CC ’12, and assistant director, Marianne Barthélemy, BC ’14. The new translation comes out of a desire to replace the “stodgy 1950s British version that was all words and no heart,” says Orr. In fact, this play has in it a scene that hadn’t originally been translated into English, so it’s being performed in English for the first time in their staging. And for those who enjoy Abusrdists like Samuel Beckett, this new translation brings Camus closer to that style. The translators hope it “mirrors the original’s stark, direct speech and raw, unembellished poetry.” It was quite a treat to see a play whose language, while being performed, feels so modern, natural, and at the same time poetic.

On a stylistic level, the play is eye-catching with its creative blocking and lighting; some of the more violent scenes were quite harrowing (evidence of good stage direction), and this can be hard to do when the audience is so close to the action. The modernization of the set and costumes (as opposed to ancient Roman garb) locates Caligula in a more recent philosophical environment with which the play’s political themes are obviously in dialogue.

The cast itself enhanced this direction to produce a successful, if not somewhat eccentric, performance. Samson Kohanski (Caligula), who’s unaffiliated with Columbia, is both commanding and heartbreaking as our crazy emperor. Other highlights were Eleanor Vaughn (Helicon), GSAS ’12, with her sardonic portrayal of Caligula’s right-hand man, Jaquen Castellanos (Caesonia), CC ’13, as Caligula’s wife, and Thompson Crozier (Scipio), also unaffiliated with Columbia, as a poet friend of Caligula.

So if you’re looking for something a little crazy, a little meta, and a lot thought-provoking, you should check out this fascinating interpretation of what it means to have the power to demand the moon.

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5 Comments

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous this is great coverage Bwog!

  • A friend says:

    @A friend Congrats, Ittai! I know you threw yourself into this; you’ve produced a beautiful creation.

  • Caligula Production says:

    @Caligula Production Sorry if you got sold out of tonight’s opening!! For tickets to either tomorrow’s 3pm or 8pm show go to http://caligula.ticketleap.com/caligula.

  • cc '14 says:

    @cc '14 a great production, refreshingly different from the usual student theatre you find around campus. if you like camus, definitely consider taking the trip downtown!

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous great play, and great review!!

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