Caligula at Arsht: Larger Than Life, Like Its Inspiration

The 29th season of the International Hispanic Theatre Festival (IHTF) of Miami, which runs July 10-27, showcases leading theater companies from across Latin America, Spain, and the United States. This year, the festival honors Argentina. It also features one Argentina's most celebrated writers and theater companies -- the eponymous Cibrián-Mahler Company, whose play opens the festival at the Arsht Center.

Caligula, a musical born out of a collaboration between writers Pepe Cibrián Campoy and Ángel Malher in Argentina in 1983, methodically and spectacularly brings to life the story of a tragically flawed tyrant who torments his subjects with ruthless guile.

It's the classic story about subjugation, torture, and fear, where the oppressed struggle to reach that intangible, fleeting illusion of freedom, while the oppressor simultaneously crushes all possibility of hope. (Argentina had only emerged from its own Caligula-like nightmare in 1983, after years known as the Dirty War, when tens of thousands of dissidents had been "disappeared" and tortured.)

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Directed by Campoy, who emigrated to Argentina from Cuba, Caligula is a complex choreography that skillfully balances dialogue and music to create an experience that feels like the offspring of the Rocky Horror Picture Show and Fellini's Satyricon. Like Caligula himself, the musical is larger-than-life, an assault on understatement. The staging is opulent and dark, packed with bodies and sharp, contrasting light. The wardrobe reveals flesh -- reveals the skin that shields, but can never truly protect one from violence.

What makes Caligula a compelling musical and character is the revelation that the human drive for absolute power and absolute pleasure is universal. It also shows that these two seemingly contradictory forces conspire together to tear down the walls of decency and empathy, especially when a megalomaniac wields these two powerful forces. Since neither force can be fully realized, the drive to possess power and pleasure can't ever be truly realized. It can only lead to one thing: dehumanizing brutality.

Caligula reveals the little caligulas inside all of us, that ever-present monster who lives, even if silently, within. Campoy and Malher have found a brash, yet harmonious way to unmask these complex layers of human behavior in a subversive musical.

In the end, Caligula is no longer a character. He's an idea -- a concept and an eternal struggle -- that positions the heel of the powerful on the necks of the powerless.

Caligula, The Musical, by Pepe Cibrián Campoy and Ángel Malher, directed by Campoy, runs Thursday, Friday, and Saturday July 10, 11 and 12 at 8:30 p.m.; on Sunday, July 13, at 5 p.m., at the Carnival Studio Theater, Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets cost $34. Call 305-949-6722 or 866-949-6722 (toll-free); or visit arshtcenter.org

--Neil de la Flor, artburstmiami.com

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