Rome danced, most times nervously, to the whims of Gaius Caesar Germanicus, so it’s hardly inappropriate that a show bearing the name by which we know him better should jitterbug mostly to the jagged tune of the virtuoso playing the title role. If the Washington Shakespeare Company’s Caligula misses a step now and then, and if its moves are noticeably more confident whenever Alexander Strain’s creeptastically charismatic emperor is leading, director Christopher Henley still choreographs the evening snappily and with a characteristically idiosyncratic WSC flair. In the end, it’s a compellingly lively, appetizingly twisted sort of monster’s ball.
The play, written in the 1940s by the French philosopher Albert Camus, turns out to be an arch take, if a surprisingly compassionate one, on what you might call an unusually proactive nihilist: Bereaved and more than a little down about it—when the play opens, his sister and lover Drusilla has just died—Camus’ 20-something Caligula returns from a few nights of wilderness soul-searching to argue that with death a universal inevitable, a little random cruelty need hardly register.
“We die, and we are unhappy” is his succinctly bitter conclusion about the human condition, and when a retainer dares to suggest that most people learn to live with that truth, the dictator, barely out of boarding school, erupts in what sounds like little more than a tantrum. “Then they delude themselves, and I want people to face the truth,” he snarls. “And, as it happens, I have the power to make them face the truth.”
From emperors’ philosophically acute tantrums grow reigns of terror, is basically what he’s saying, and from there it’s just a short slash to a full-blown shredding of the social compact, with patricians being forced to run like dogs behind the emperor’s chariot and leading citizens getting whacked willy-nilly so their assets can be seized to refill the depleted treasury. (“Bear in mind,” Caligula drawls, “that it’s no more immoral to rob the citizens directly than it is to do it by stealth—slipping taxes on the price of bread or whatever.”)
You’d call it an insane logic, the arguments Camus’ Caligula makes to make sense of his sanguinary campaigns, but this is one philosopher-playwright mischievous enough to suggest that genuine logic can’t be crazy, and that what we think of as logic is actually reason watered down by morality: “If the treasury is to be priority No. 1,” Caligula explains with a wicked mock patience, “then human life becomes priority No. 2.…I have decided to become a logical emperor. And now you’re going to find out what logic costs.”
If Camus seems to be having a bit of sport at the expense of philosophical distance, he’s nonetheless delicate enough, and humane enough too, to locate a tragic vein in a character usually played on one mad note. This is one monster who’s got a positively Quaker past (“The only real sin is to cause another’s suffering,” he’s reported to have opined before his conversion) and who sees his monstrosity reflected back from the mirror—a notion Henley underscores niftily by interpolating a sort of Shadow Caligula (Evan Crump, robed all in white). And logic being logic, he views his own extermination with the same antic disregard he brings to the slaughter of his subjects; he all but hands them the tools to bring him down, and in one case, he’s perverse enough to use a cleanly reasoned syllogism to spare a conspirator who’s come to warn him of an assassination plot.
It helps immeasurably that Strain’s quicksilver interpretation—all deft emotional hairpins, supported by a dazzling fluency with both the words and the ideas behind them—actually makes you want to mourn the beast. But I don’t mean to suggest that his performance is the only reason to see the show: There’s a core group of smart folks doing smart work here, including Abby Wood and Rahaleh Nassri as loyalists-to-the-death and Kathleen Akerley as an opposition organizer whose self-interest (gasp!) comes second to principle. They’re working with some fairly tough material—in fact, you’ll be hard pressed, this side of Shakespeare, to find a text more thickly layered with abstruse notions—and the clarity with which it gets put across is pretty damn remarkable.
So never mind that some of the squawking patricians, an interchangeable lot in cream-colored cutaway togas, seem a little cardboard. Never mind that one or two of the cast, in a show that relies pretty heavily on heightened, expressive language, could use a little more time with a vocal coach. And never mind that early on, there’s a whiff too much glib cynicism about the overall tone Henley sets.
It’s enough that there’s a company in town with the nerve to produce a play like Caligula, to create opportunities for less experienced actors to polish their craft in huge, difficult dramas—and to offer a substantial showcase for a genuinely first-rate talent while he’s still young enough to make sense in the part. Strain, I genuinely think, has a long and distinguished career in front of him; if you’re smart now, you’ll be able to tell your family in a decade or two that you saw him when.