Strong acting propels Cuban troupe’s ‘Caligula’

Jordan Levin reviews Cuba’s Teatro EL Público’s production of Albert Camus’ Caligula.

As the audience filed into the Colony Theater for Teatro El Publico’s production of Camus’ Caligula, the actors from the acclaimed Havana troupe moved onstage in cool, silent dissipation.

To carnival-like music, the men (and women) playing Roman senators portray a series of violent, sexual acts, mostly aimed at the fey, near-naked figure of Yerandi Basart. Caligula, played with melodramatic aplomb by Fernando Hechavarria, may be more powerful and viciously capricious than the men he oppresses. But they certainly can’t claim much in the way of moral high ground.

Caligula, which opened Thursday, is Teatro El Publico’s second, highly anticipated appearance at Miami’s Out in the Tropics festival. Company director Carlos Diaz’s production is claustrophobic and heated, with a sexed-up nihilism, rife with Cuban political satire. He takes aim at the way fear makes people give in to and even collude with their oppressors, and finds ample ways to make Camus’ World War II era play echo the dynamic in Cuba.

When Quereas, a senator resisting Caligula, announces to his fellow patricians that “He’s not so easy to kill, compañeros!” the mostly Cuban audience responded with knowing laughter. Another resonant scene centers on the idealistic young poet Escipion (played in a disorienting gender twist by Broselianda Hernandez). He is the only moral character in the play, but although he is horrified by Caligula’s cruelty, Escipion is also seduced by him. Instead of fighting the tyrant, the poet leaves, holding up a Cuban passport and telling Caligula, “Remember that I loved you.”

The enthusiastic audience was forgiving of the technical glitches (unreliable stage lights and English super-titles) that marred opening night.

That interplay between oppressor and oppressed is the most compelling aspect of this production. At one point the actors bring audience members onstage to help pay homage to Caligula, posing as a god, while his enabling lover Cesonia (Ysmercy Salomon) drones in the tone and cadence of a Catholic liturgy.

As Caligula, Hechavarria is as much Juan Gabriel (the Latin music world’s Liberace) as Roman tyrant, all swishing robes and mincing menace. As the emperor’s enforcer, Helikon, Carlos Caballero is a charismatic and convincing combination of thug and whore, delivering blows to senators and blow jobs to his master with careless, chilling enthusiasm. Willowy Salomon glories in her status as Caligula’s favorite female accomplice and grovels in self-hatred. Basarti becomes Caligula’s doll-like alter ego.

Despite the strength of the acting and of Diaz’s vital staging and opulent costumes, the play feels somewhat repetitive and mechanical. We return again and again to Caligula’s quixotic dream of possessing the moon and to his amorality and capriciousness.

That’s due in part to Camus’ text. His characters are symbols – of amorality, of meaninglessness — more than people. But the melodramatic tone, the constant sex, the intensity of this production can be numbing.

If you go

What: Teatro El Publico’s ‘Caligula’

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Where: Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach

Tickets: $30, $25 students and seniors at or the Colony box office

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