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Review: Caligula (Organic Theater Company)

By Chicagotheaterbeat @chitheaterbeat

Review: Caligula (Organic Theater Company)   

Written by Albert Camus
Directed by Alexander Gelman
Greenhouse Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
thru July 7  |  tickets: $19   |  more info
Check for half-price tickets 
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One of history’s most infamous villains is strangely bloodless


Review: Caligula (Organic Theater Company)


Organic Theater Company presents



Review by Clint May 

Playwright Albert Camus often revisited what would become his best known production, particularly after the lessons he learned watching the world go insane in WWII. Had he lived yet longer, I’d be curious to know if he’d make more of a point to show us that our modern view of Caligula as an insane and incestuous emperor of Rome is in fact taken from highly suspect sources. Regardless, like Machiavelli after him, his name has become synonymous with something disreputable in part because his critics fanned the flames and our information is incomplete. What Camus gets so brilliantly right in his Caligula is not just how unbridled power can drive you into absurdity, but the way in which supposedly sane people react to you can be just as chilling. This is just one piece of Camus’ 3-part cycle on the absurd, the others being the essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” and the novel “The Stranger”. As a triptych, it’s important to remember that, while Caligula stands alone, it is best seen in the context of the other two works as representing a philosophical treatise that begins to show how Camus sought to evolve truly transcendent ideals in an apparently meaningless universe. Suffice to say, Caligula is the cautionary example of how not to do so.

Mounted in repertory by the Organic Theater Company, along with The Emigrants, their Caligula arrives with a stylish flourish but quickly devolves into a near-flat interpretation of what should be a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. As a densely layered look at absurdity in power, this is a production with a vast range of viewpoints and a multilayered, even sympathetic, approach to one of history’s greatest (supposedly) mad men. That it becomes more soap opera than true theater of the absurd under Alexander Gelman’s direction is in itself a tragedy.

Beginning three days after the death of his beloved sister Drusilla, the patricians of Rome are ‘Waiting for Caligula.’ He’s gone off in a fit of grief, the young emperor (Colin Jackson) unable to handle his first glimpse of what he will come to see as the ultimate truth: men die and they are unhappy. That may be true, but putting that insight into the mind of an already unstable man/boy will begin to test the limits of ultimate power. Why, he ponders, can he not have the Moon itself?

Surrounded as he is by mindless sycophants who secretly despise him (and eventually conspire to kill him), there are a few among them who represent varying complex degrees of coping with a madman in the midst. Helicon (Denice Mahler), his assistant, just turns off her mind, being too intelligent to think and still grateful for being rescued from a life of slavery. She, perhaps most wisely, is just concerned with having lunch. One of his lovers, Caesonia (Kaitlin J. Henderson) goes in wholeheartedly and pledges her love and life. Pragmatic after a fashion, Cherea (Anthony Perrella Jr.), feels sorry for the emperor—no love or hate—and sees only a troublesome man who must be ended to keep the world moving as it has. The poet Scipio (Joe Mikieta) continues to love the errant emperor even after he kills his father, perhaps seeing a kindred spirit. Their responses to both Caligula, those would kill him, and their own acknowledgment of the absurd are more fascinating in some respects than Caligula’s own pontification on the contradictions of existence. As his mental imbalance grows over the course of his short four-year reign, he blasphemes the gods, fornicates with married women in front of their husbands, and stages elaborate deceptions to test the people around him. His untimely death is inevitable even to him, and he accepts and even arms those who would end him as part of the grand punctuation to his commentary on life as meaningless.

Staged in conjunction with another work of absurdist fiction, The Emigrants, Caligula as a concept is re-contextualized by Organic as one piece of a two-part dialog on the nature of power and slavery. It’s an ingenious pairing of two works separated by 30 years. This makes it all the more crushing that Caligula is merely prosaic when it has so much opportunity to be provocative. After viewing The Emigrants and witnessing the same director craft a work of brilliant absurdity not seen by this critic since Trap Door Theatre’s Smartphone, I’m at a loss to explain the schism. Caligula’s cast feels unabsorbed in its own material. Readings feel uninspired to melodramatic, characters are wooden, insights lost. Even the props at times get in their own way with clattering chairs (the only set piece) masking dialog. What Caligula needs is gusto, not clowning; emotion, not mimicry.

Though Camus resisted the label of “existentialist” in his own time (he is thought of as a founding member of its child, absurdism), he continues to be grouped in among them in the pantheon of 20th century philosophers. Caligula has a lot of things to say about meaninglessness in the face of an impartial universe. What is absurd for Caligula is his rigid idealism, the striving for things he knows to be impossible. His reign is a slow suicide, which Camus rejects as an appropriate reaction in The Myth of Sisyphus (“The struggle is enough”). Caligula’s ironic “triumph” is mirrored by the powerless in The Emigrants, a show that regretfully makes the errors of this production all the more glaring.


Rating: ★★



Caligula continues through June 7th at Greenhouse Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln (map), performing in repertory with “The Emigrants”.  Tickets are $19, and are available by phone (773-404-7336) or online through (Half-price tickets at More information at time: 2 hours 15 minutes, includes an intermission)




Colin Jackson (Caligula), Joe Mikieta (Scipio), Anthony Perrella Jr. (Cherea), Denice Mahler (Helicon), Kaitlin J. Henderson (Caesonia), Joel Moses (Meria), Mark Gardner (Lepidus), Scott Stockwell (Old Patrician), Joseph Ramski (Muscius), Bill Gordon (Intendant), Philena Gilmer (Wife of Muscius)

behind the scenes

Alexander Gelman (director), Josh Anderson (assistant director), Angela King (stage manager), Terrence McClellan (set design), Ryan Breneisen (lighting design), Angela Enos (costume design), M. Anthony Reimer (sound design), Zach Johnson (tech director)


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