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Theater Review:

"CALIGULA" at TinFish Theatre


"Caligula," Albert Camus’ highly theatrical exploration of absolute freedom through one of Rome’s most profligate emperors, treats the ruler’s ludicrous quest for the moon as a metaphor for humankind’s vain search for meaning. Over the course of the play, the writer proceeds to negate the many tiers of freedom within his existentialist philosophy – even rendering the very issue of freedom devoid of significance.

Yet within these intellectual paradoxes, Camus maintains that those who recognize the absurdity of life can ultimately lead a fuller one. Caligula, despite his limitless power and curiosity, destroys himself through his exhaustive desire for understanding and wildly unbalanced sense of right and wrong. Needless to say, "Caligula" can be a confounding play to wrap one’s brain around. But its poetic plunge into a fanatic sort of futility, which leads to emotional liberation, makes for stinging and stimulating theater.

TinFish Theatre, dedicated to European literary figures, brings an uncluttered understanding of the text to its rather straightforward production. But Dejan Avramovich’s staging, while lucid and layered, vacillates in tone (from stilted and self-consciously ridiculous to deeply ponderous and melodramatic). He also can push the brutal and diabolical results of Caligula’s cock-eyed quest much further. There’s a tame, almost reverential, quality to this production. Yet, at times, it veers off into the realm of hyper self-aware proclamations.

What works well is TinFish’s ability to illustrate Camus’ play-acting structure – as if Caligula’s demented reign is enacted on a proscenium filled with contrived props underscoring the falseness on anyone’s part to seek true answers to impossible questions. It is this natural impulse to find closure that both propels Camus’ characters forward and thwarts them. Jon Frazier’s gaudy pageant-like scenic design – accented by a looming round moon and an equally orb-like gong – successfully makes us aware at every repulsive turn that we are watching a tattered tragicomedy unfold amid the fake columns and tapestries. To this end, Avramovich can more forcefully play up the characters’ vaudevillian antics.

As Caligula – and "the one free man in the whole Roman Empire" – Joel Friend wisely tones down the tyrant’s bug-eyed madness. He could have resorted to "playing crazy" rather than reach into his character’s unspeakable depths of anguish. For all of his flippant brutalities, Friend’s Caligula takes on a pitiful, self-loathing demeanor: one that longs for death, and one that – like, say, Pol Pot – believes that executing his subjects for no visible reason will liberate them from hell on earth (a hell from which the emperor achingly tries to escape).

Only Ryan Young as the morally torn Scipio serves as an earnest and innocent yet vengeful and guilt-racked counterpart to Caligula’s calculated-contradictory whims. Over the course of the play, Tipton Carlson grows in his grounded but semi-cowardly interpretation of Lepidus. And Reid Ostrowski, a fine actor who brings a mesmerizing classical bearing to the role of the plotting Cherea, chooses a pompous style of delivery that ultimately alienates him from the rest of the characters. Cherea is supposed to stand apart from the herd, but Ostrowski nearly carries him into another play – one that also might star Charlton Heston.

Lisa Stran as Caligula’s mistress Caesonia opts for a surprisingly one-dimensional characterization prone to arm-waving hysterics. Caesonia, who both despises and loves Caligula, is one of the play’s most complex characters. We need to get a more heartwrenching sense of how she pairs sexuality, cruelty and hide-saving opportunism to hopelessly avoid her inevitable fate. The other actors tend toward more self-conscious portrayals.

But "Caligula" is always a challenging and invigorating work to experience. Camus’ Caligula suffers from "a disease fatal to other’s only." When he goads his counselors into murdering him, it’s a form of existential euthanasia. This troubled historic figure surrenders to his darker impulses. And, in his fanatical wish to harness the moon, Caligula continues to hopelessly seek to shed light on his charred soul.•

"Caligula" runs through February 23 at TinFish Theatre, 4247 N. Lincoln. Tickets: $14-$17.50. Call 773-549-1888 or log onto

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