Open: 03/12/10- Close: 04/17/10
Reviewed for TheaterOnline.com By: Lauren Wissot
Lia Chang ©2018 Justine Joli as Caesonia and Ryan Knowles as Caligula with the cast.
"Rocky Horror Picture Show" meets Coney Island Sideshow is how best to describe writer/director Alfred Preisser and writer Randy Weiner's "Caligula Maximus," a loveably scruffy and ragged extravaganza set on the last night of the debauched dictator's life. While not exactly DIY indie theater - Preisser is better known as the co-founder of Classical Theatre of Harlem while Weiner owns hipster venue The Box - "Caligula Maximus" does boast a homemade "let's put on a show" sensibility that shines addictively through.
Immediately, Preisser and Weiner's event announces its rebel intentions with a live rock band and a hodgepodge of pro bodybuilders, burlesque babes, aerialists and assorted tattooed and pierced talent that dance, writhe, walk on stilts and swing through the air as the audience enters the theater's circus tent setup. And the show's casting alone speaks volumes. Riding in on a giant golden penis against the backdrop of crumbling Roman Empire columns is the Mick Jagger resembling Ryan Knowles as Caligula, a charismatic performer who has both played villains and done time as a Nickelodeon TV show host. Then there's Penthouse Pet - and Nerdcore Horror Calendar pinup chick - Justine Joli as Caligula's wife Caesonia, who like Knowles understands the childlike play, the creative exploration, at the heart of sex. Which also happened to be Caligula's Achilles heel. While it may be true that "You can't fight a war while you're having an orgasm," as the bare-chested dictator proclaims, you also can't run an empire if you appoint your pony to a government post. (No matter that that horse "has actually read the 'Kama Sutra' - and not just looked at the pictures.")
Lia Chang ©2018 Justine Joli as Caesonia and Ryan Knowles
From the show's opening number, announced by a mohawk-sporting emcee (who later glides naked across the stage on roller skates) and set to music from The Village People's "In The Navy," to the forecaster of doom/peanut vendor's Beastie Boys-like rant during a strobe-lit slaughter, to its peace-and-love participatory ending that quickly turns nasty, "Caligula Maximus" is one big, punk rock smackdown answer to sissy hippie "Hair." After the "Ladies of Hades" rush onstage to the sounds of Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle" to wage battle in WWE-inspired matches (complete with folding chair antics) Christ appears to take on Caligula himself. "What's your choice of weapon?" the dictator asks. "Peace and love," the Savior replies. To which Caligula cries in exasperation, "What the fuck is this?" Later the dictator even turns on us. The sweet coaxing of audience members to the stage with "Step down into the pool, bring your beer" - did I neglect to mention the free beer offered on your way to the bleacher seats? - segues into rabid hilarious ranting. To those of us who've chosen to disobey orders he screams, "Why are you still seated? Get into the motherfucking pool!".
Yet even when the innocent games fatefully turn to pain Caligula defiantly declares, "I might have flown too close to the sun, but while I was there it was warm and bright and fun." "Caligula Maximus" is certainly brilliant proof of that.
Ellen Stewart Theatre : 66 E. 4th St