Joseph Ramski, Joel Moses, Mark Gardner Credit: Matthew Knox

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Albert Camus finished his first draft of Caligula in 1938, when he was just 25—”the age when one doubts everything except oneself,” as he later put it. The tragedy’s central character is a young man of about the same age who nevertheless doubts nothing: Caligula, the sister-shtupping, friend-killing, self-deifying Roman emperor whose brief, autocratic reign (AD 37-41) stands out for its capriciousness and cruelty. Prefiguring the dictators of Camus’s own time, Caligula criminalized dissent, gouged the citizenry to pay for extravagant construction projects, and had former supporters put to death. Little wonder that he was soon assassinated by a band of conspirators.

It sounds like the makings of a Jacobean bloodbath, but Camus shows a restraint and a preoccupation with matters of fate that are more in keeping with classical tragedy. The same can be said, by and large, of Alexander Gelman‘s perceptive staging for Organic Theater Company. Though things tend to get overheated whenever sex is involved (especially in Kaitlin Henderson’s slithery performance as Caligula’s mistress), Gelman restricts himself to a black-and-white color scheme, stark lighting, and a simple but effective metaphor for disorder—a set littered with overturned chairs. He shows a willingness to engage with the complexities of Camus’s ideas rather than paper over them.

We first see Caligula after the death of his beloved sister (and possible mistress) Drusilla, an event that inspires a realization in the previously mild-mannered emperor: “Men die; and they are not happy.” The solution, he decides, is to pursue a freedom unencumbered by morality, human feeling, logic, or any other constraint. Thanks to his poisoned outlook, he can only conceive of liberty that comes at the expense of others, and so it’s not long before Rome has turned into a charnel house. “Starting from unlimited freedom,” as a character says in Dostoevsky’s The Devils, “I arrive at unlimited despotism.”

Caligula goes past mere despotism to destruction. And since he tends to take things to extremes, this eventually includes self-destruction. At several points, he even helps along the conspiracy forming against him by sparing the lives of his two principal sparring partners, pragmatic military man Cherea (Anthony Perrella Jr.) and softhearted poet Scipio (a quietly soulful Joe Mikieta).

The weak point in Gelman’s production—and it’s ultimately fatal to the show—is Colin Jackson’s performance as Caligula. Inasmuch as the role represents a slow-motion suicide, the challenge is to avoid making Caligula seem mad as a hatter or in a perpetual funk. Jackson oscillates between these two registers, capering merrily during manic episodes and seeming blank and benumbed during the serious stuff. He gives us nothing to be frightened of.

Organic Theater is performing Caligula in rotating repertory with The Emigrants (1974), a bleak and often bitterly funny play by the Polish dramatist Slawomir Mrozek. It’s not an obvious pairing, but it’s an ingenious one. Both plays explore themes of power and freedom from the perspective of characters who have found that “men die; and they are not happy.” The difference is that while Caligula enjoys the view from the penthouse, Mrozek’s pair of penniless emigres are stuck in the basement.

Their unnamed country of origin is some godforsaken place controlled by a brutal regime that rules by fear, suspicion, and sham justice. Known only as AA and XX, the two men now find themselves living in a shabby underground apartment in a large, ostensibly free capital of commerce like New York or London. Terrence McClellan’s concrete-walled set is lined with clanking sewage and heating pipes, reinforcing AA’s assertion that the anonymous duo are like microbes in the bowels of the metropolis.

AA is a scholar and political refugee; XX is a laborer trying to save up enough money to buy a comfortable life for himself back home. He has fantasies of returning to his village and amazing everyone with his wealth—a pipe dream that AA feels compelled to puncture. Over the course of a New Year’s Eve, the roommates get drunk, homesick, and hostile, each resenting the other’s illusions and sharing his sense of belonging neither here nor there.

Both XX and AA recognize that their lives in the old country were unsatisfactory but, lacking Caligula’s power to bend the world to his will, they end up merely exchanging one form of enslavement for another. AA takes refuge in a kind of perverse nihilism, while XX works like an ox for skimpy wages and little time off. Emigrating hasn’t brought freedom except in the most basic sense.

In contrast to Caligula, Gelman’s casting here is impeccable. Josh Anderson’s AA is both genial and smug, and seems perfectly calibrated to push all the buttons of Joel Huff’s excitable XX. As much credit as Anderson deserves for enlivening a static character, it’s Huff who walks away with the whole thing. Sporting a cheap suit, greasy mustache, and socks that are more hole than fabric, he delivers a riveting, volatile performance, conveying the humor, pathos, and menace lurking in a man written off as a boor and buffoon.