Element Theatre Company

at Northeastern Illinois University, Stage Center

It’s hard to imagine a smarter play in a stupider production than this perverse coupling of Caligula, Albert Camus’ difficult, rarely performed tragedy, with the out-of-their-Element Theatre Company. Of course the play’s reputation is strong enough that it should withstand a single uninspired revival, however much Element may try to pass off clumsy bluster as passion. (Still, how much longer will we have to wait now for a decent production?)

Even the ideas suffer. According to her director’s notes, Wendy Rohm sees Caligula as being “about the search for belonging and meaning in a world without any given belief systems. . . . For some, the only solace is in the ‘community’ of a cult.” But that’s not the world Camus imagines: unlike the misguided souls of Jonestown and Rancho Armageddon, Caligula’s citizen-victims never give their souls to his trust–though it’s true that Caligula, like Nero, pretended he was a god. And Caligula’s final tragedy is his isolation; he cuts himself off from humanity, his own and others’–to Camus the sole source of values. If only Koresh had been so alone.

Camus was inspired by Suetonius’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars, which castigates Caligula as a transvestite poet, incestuous brother, and fomenter of famine. Camus preferred to imagine the Roman emperor as a demented dreamer who created a national nightmare. Angered by the discovery that “Men die; and they are not happy,” Caligula feels free to indulge in extortion, theft, omnivorous sex, and murder, obliterating all values, especially love, in order to taste his evil idea of perfect freedom.

The outcome is what Camus calls Caligula’s “superior suicide.” The boy-king’s godlike self-gratification only proves that “one cannot be free at the expense of others.” In effect this 1938 play by a noted existentialist resolutely looks backward–to Kant, vindicating his categorical imperative: “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” Caligula’s efforts to rise above fate and death mean he only falls farther.

Element Theatre’s revival of this worthy play is worse than no revival at all–it’s a misconceived botch that’s neither scary nor sardonic nor intelligent nor campy enough to work on any level. And that, saddest of all, may scare people off from Camus’ original.

What this production does achieve, and spectacularly, is tedium, the hard-earned reward of a plodding staging that’s unfelt throughout and unconvincing in its updated, anachronistic form: the setting is a “cult compound somewhere in America,” a change that does nothing but narrow the scope. The performances are half-hearted and hesitant, even in the unerotic orgy scenes. In the pivo- tal role of Caligula, Christopher Scheithe blows hot and cold in a forced frenzy that ranges from inaudible mumbling to cataleptic fits; since his rants are not rooted in any psychological reality, he only convinces in the occasional lyrical outburst, like Caligula’s apostrophe to the moon he wants to marry. It’s not enough.

As Caligula’s evil lover (and final victim) Caesonia, Susan Block vamps it up, only to die as unbelievably as she’s done everything else. (She may look and strut like Joan Collins, but that doesn’t amount to a concept.) John Farrimond plays the reluctant rebel Cherea far too reluctantly, while Ray Holloway only hints at the poignance of the idealistic young poet Scipio. Actors in other roles recite woodenly when they’re not looking for an exit. At the least they could convey a small sense of the menace Camus requires; instead they reinforce our first impression of Caligula as a bad joke.

The stand-out here is Robert G. Smith’s design. The set is an elegant amalgam of marble levels and convex mirrors, and his lighting paints the terraces with a sepulchral mystery, which unfortunately makes the performances seem even more leaden by comparison. The costumes, by Julienne Schubert and Carolyn Lawler, would be camp classics if this production had a sense of humor.

At least the theater is air-conditioned.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin-Jennifer Girard Studio.