Caligula Maximus :: Black Party by way of Hedwig & Cirque du Soleil

by John Russell

Friday April 15, 2011

For many, Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus-that's Caligula to you-has become an enduring symbol of depravity and sexual abandon. Thanks in large part to the eponymous 1979 film, but also to historical sources that implicated him in acts of murder, incest and insanity, the Roman emperor's name has become synonymous with perversion and madness.

Could you ask for a better subject for a disco theatrical experience?

"In terms of a male, decadent character, there are few that equal him in that kind of reputation," says Stephen Pevner, producer of the The Saint at Large's new Caligula Maximus, running through April 17th at Brooklyn's House of Yes.

"For what I do, he seemed like a natural idea for all that's nihilistic and hedonistic about the west: waste, decadence. He's a colorful character."

The show, written by Alfred Preisser and Randy Weiner and originally performed last year at La Mama E.T.C., is a hybrid of musical theater, circus performance and nightclub experience, not unlike Weiner's wildly successful The Donkey Show. But where the The Donkey Show filtered A Midsummer Night's Dream through the lens of Saturday Night Fever, Caligula Maximus is much more akin to The Saint's annual Black Party with a healthy nod to Hedwig and Cirque du Soleil.

A musical hybrid

"I’ve always wanted to create a hybrid between a nightclub experience and a musical," says Pevner, who’s extensive production credits include The Vagina Monologues, Neil LaBute’s Bash, and Matt & Ben. Pevner says when he saw the original production at La Mama E.T.C. he could see its potential immediately. "I thought, ’This is the perfect theme, subject, style that would work in a nightclub experience.’ You’re not sitting in a seat. You can dance, you can mix in and out. You’re in it."

The show depicts the penultimate orgiastic bacchanal on the final night of Caligula’s reign. As aerialists soar overhead, the audience is treated to the highlights of the emperor’s scandalous life: the murder of his pregnant wife; he promotion of his spectacularly endowed horse to the Roman senate; and ultimately his own assassination. Like the infamous film, this Caligula is not for the faint of heart. Themes of slavery, anti-Semitism, bestiality and blasphemy are at the core of the title character; Caligula is, after all, the most despicable of aniti-heroes.

Pevner and director Jen Bender have made significant changes to this version of the show, adding all new music and immersing the audience much more heavily into the action. And to add to the sense of Caligula Maximus as a nightclub experience, Pevner has cast some of New York nightlife’s most talented personalities, like singer Brittany Campbell and burlesque star Stormy Leather.

"I was shocked when they asked me to be Caligula," says Jamin Ruhren, otherwise known to the city’s creatures of the night as Acid Betty. "It’s hard playing Caligula because people start to hate me, and so I have to take that on and it’s really hard for me to decipher whether they really don’t like me or if I’ve done my job!"

For his part, industrial-pop musician Kayvon Zand came to the role of Helicon-Caligula’s right hand man and the show’s emcee-not quite knowing what to expect. "I’ll be honest, when I first heard about the project I knew nothing about it, so I was kinda turned off," he says. "When I started to learn more about Helicon, I started to understand that they wanted this character who is over the top. Those are things that I can relate to."

"We have actors who are from the nightclub world," says Pevner, "So they know how to interact with people and change the script to appeal to each audience."

As Caligula, Ruhren in particular has to engage with, even flirt with and seduce the audience. There is no fourth wall here. The line between performers and audience is almost non-existent, and Ruhren’s experience as a sharp-tongued, quick-witted, larger-than life host at Manhattan hot spots serves him well.

After Caligula ends its run at House of Yes, Pevner says the plan is to take the show on the road, creating one-off nightclub installations at venues around the city. There was even talk backstage of a New Year’s Eve party centered around the show.

"It’s like a concert, like a Lady Gaga concert, as opposed to theater," he says. Pevner wants people to feel a sense of urgency about the show. "When this appears, it’s a big party. It should be an event. I want people to think, ’I have to go see it because I’m not gonna see it again for another three months!’"

Caligula Maximus, through April 17th at House of Yes, 342 Maujer St., Brooklyn,, $20.

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