Caligula, the nihilistic modernist classic by Albert Camus, seems an utterly unlikely candidate for a musical. There’s not even a glimmer of hope, much less a happy ending, in this 1945 play about an insanely brutal ruler and the terrifying consequences of dictatorial power. But the Argentine production Calígula, el musical (‘Caligula, the Musical’) throbs with dystopian melodrama and booming ballads. It’s Evita meets Mad Max on steroids and methamphetamines.
The show, which opened the XXIX International Hispanic Theatre Festival on Thursday, runs through Sunday afternoon at the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center.
The 1983 show was the first effort by the highly successful team of author Pepe Cibrián Campoy and composer Angel Mahler, who went on to create a string of musicals also based on classic texts, including Dracula and A Thousand and One Nights. Campoy and Mahler created Calígula under Argentina’s brutal military dictatorship and premiered it in the regime’s twilight. Their musical (all in Spanish) refracts the play’s themes of the destructiveness of power and the seductive resilience of evil through Argentina’s history and national character.
In a post-show discussion, Campoy joked that anything, even the phone book, could be turned into a musical. Whether that’s a positive change for Calígula is debatable. In one way, the energy and ironic humor of the musical format make the play’s viciousness more bearable. But in another way, the musical is even more grueling, surging from bombastic to over-the-top for two hours, with no respite to think.
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Mahler’s songs are mostly pop-operatic power ballads and anthems. And you see the show’s ’80s origins in Rene Diviu’s dated-looking punk S&M costumes, while Nicolas Perez Costa’s choreography is reminiscent of music videos from the same era.
Damian Iglesias gives a masterfully focused and menacing performance as the title character, leading a fiercely committed and talented cast of 12. Iglesias pivots from swaggering macho to terrifying self-assurance and self-absorption. He rapes enthusiastically, strangles nonchalantly. “What do the people matter to me? Nothing matters but me,” he sings to his groveling favorite/lover Mnester (Nicolas Perez Costa — outdone in seductive abasement by Gabriela Bevacqua as Calígula’s lover/sister Drusila).
Camus’ World War II-era play showed the terror and moral degradation of fascism via an insane Roman ruler. It’s not much of a stretch to the Argentine military dictatorship that repressed, tortured and murdered its people. (We saw the link to another Latin American dictatorship in Cuban troupe Teatro El Publico’s production of Calígula on the 2012 Out in the Tropics Festival.)
But Campoy and Mahler also tie that evil to flaws in their country’s national character — egotism, machismo, overweening sexuality — emphasizing that there will always be another Calígula. “Poor people, they don’t understand,” sings the stalking, malevolent Soothsayer (Karina Saez). “It’s always the same.” When Calígula briefly dies, the cast flits in confused terror until he returns.
Leandro Gazzia plays Calígula’s uncle Claudius as a manipulative, simpering cross between jester and kingmaker of a ruler he summons from the billowing purple fabric that seems to symbolize Argentina. There’s a bizarre number for Cesonia (Tiki Lovera), a lascivious, perversely maternal figure who births a lifeless “child.”
All this is richly provoking and disturbing. But Calígula’s relentless intensity and over-the-top style make it very hard to absorb.