THEATER | A frightfully good “Caligula” from Walking Shadow

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Roman emperor Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, known to history by his childhood nickname—Caligula—is among the ancient world’s highest-profile despots. Scholars have yet to unearth a definitive account. It’s agreed, though, that his first two years on the throne pleased a lot of people, especially political prisoners he freed and exiled citizens he repatriated. Around 39 AD, something sent him careening on a bender of sexual gluttony and such tyranny as caused his assassination, at age 29, in 42 AD. Next to nothing is known of the man himself, leaving speculation wide open, hinged on the one aspect no one argues: by the time imperial guards stabbed him to death, Caligula had gone insane. He remains, after all these years, a mysterious and fascinating figure.

It isn’t hard to see what drew existential icon Albert Camus to dramatize him in the play Caligula. In fact, it’s a natural fit. Caligula’s behavior, as much as is documented, renders him an existentialist playwright’s wet dream—a character for whom life holds only one rule: that there are no rules. Had Camus not written Caligula, Edward Albee surely would have (indeed, Albee hit the same mark, dead-on, with the tragically chaotic Jerry of Zoo Story).

caligula, a play written by albert camus and directed by amy rummenie. presented by walking shadow theatre company through february 28 at the red eye theater, 15 w. 14th st., minneapolis. for tickets ($16) and information, see walkingshadowcompany.org.

Walking Shadow Theatre Company’s production of Caligula at Red Eye Theater, directed by Amy Rummenie and starring Dave Gangler, is splendid. The script—translated, from the French, by British author David Greig—is surprisingly economic, given European existentialists’ penchant for interminable contemplation of the mundane. Greig’s dialogue is so tight that one can overlook his one or twice lapsing into contemporary colloquialism for this period piece. Ultimately, he brings the story home.

Amy Rummenie (Amazons and Their Men, The American Pilot), Walking Shadow founding member and co-artistic-director, makes a hard job look easy. Guiding a 14-member cast through a roughly two-hour production, keeping the pace brisk and eliciting sterling turns from her principal actors, Rummenie wields the sort of mastery for which such celebrated names as Bain Boehlke, Lynn Musgrave, and Lou Bellamy are known. She mines each moment for all it is worth; the small details amount to a strong overall vision.

It doesn’t hurt, of course, to have Dave Gangler in the lead. The prospect of portraying Caligula is fraught with temptations to ham it up. Gangler, accomplished on stage, television, and in film, handily avoids stepping into that trap. Brilliantly understated, he brings range and subtlety to bear, pulling off a complex portrayal—both protagonist and self-defeating antagonist—with rich presence and compelling immediacy.

In support, Charles Hubbel renders a stately Helicon (Caligula’s right-hand man) with strength and grace. Ellen Karsten is a rock as Caesonia, Caligula’s wife-cum-surrogate-mother. Caesonia puts herself through Caligula’s neglect, tortuously hanging on for the day he might come to his senses. Karsten brings gravity to the role; she is consistent and wholly effective. Jennifer Phillips’s performance proves the adage that there are no small roles, only small actors. Without a word of dialogue, she signals, through sadly expressive eyes, the agonized plight of a royal wife Caligula appropriates for no other reason that he can, as emperor, get away with it.

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.

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