A naked girl hula hoops and asks unsuspecting audience members if they will buy her some candy. There’s a naked male roller skater. A man gets lowered on stage by a great big giant gold dong. A live band performs Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” while patrons imbibe free beer from the lobby. And that’s just in the first 10 minutes of Caligula Maximus, a rowdy, rude, loud, and eventually wearying retelling of the legend, only this time with female bodybuilders, acrobats, and full-on dance numbers with a cast that is seemingly endless.
Playing the titular, self-created deity Caligula with a cheeky, pervy, party-boy hauteur not unlike Cabaret’s furtive emcee, the brave, highly attention-catching Ryan Knowles lords over a most unruly evening, and your enjoyment of the show is probably most dependent on how anarchic your sensibilities are. This is down-and-dirty downtown theater of the crudest kind, which is highly commendable in this era of prefab junk-food theater and would be even more so if the whole enterprise (envisioned by Classical Theatre of Harlem’s Alfred Preisser and nightspot impresario Randy Weiner) didn’t feel so slickly disjointed.
There’s a lot going on in its 75 minutes (I haven’t even mentioned the wrestling bouts, the oyster lapped off of a woman’s vagina, or the gospel hoedown), and it’s great to see someone truly using the vast entirety of the wonderful Ellen Stewart Theater at La MaMa. But the geezer in you kind of wants to take its creators by the ear and tell them that an audience’s constant submission doesn’t exactly substitute for sharp, focused disorder.
For more good clean fun (if you don’t mind a little arterial spray), head a little further downtown to HERE Arts Center, where the newest offering from Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company, the playful throwback horror/kung-fu comedy Alice in Slasherland shows an audience that a little scrappiness can be a useful tool. Cleverly timed to coincide with a certain blockbuster movie now playing despite explicitly stating (twice) that this play “doesn’t resemble [it] at all…like in any way…not even in theme,” this company’s utter giddiness in reveling in juvenilia is awfully hard to resist.
Tracing a young nerd named Lewis (wonderful Carlo Alban) who suddenly finds himself battling demons from hell while juggling his affections for cheerleader Margaret (Bonnie Sherman) and newfound scary goth chick Alice (Amy Kim Waschke), director Robert Ross Parker and writer Qui Nguyen, who collaborated on last year’s rollicking good time Soul Samurai, throw in horror flick references by the truckload (a little Ringu here, some Halloween there), showing major affection for Sam Raimi’s blood-spatter pics. But it’s the affectionate attention to their own silly story that’s so endearing about this company (they truly buy into their own schlock), and even when jokes fall flat, the cast and creators pick up the slack wherever possible, with a great assist from their multimedia contributions (a video riff on the semi-actual story of Alice in Wonderland is a hoot) to their puppet creations (most notably, a smack-talkin’ teddy bear named Edgar whose favorite word is “fuck”). And any show that scores a montage of teens getting hacked to bits by a demon to the strains of Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” is doing something right in my book.
Caligula Maximus is now playing at La MaMa E.T.C. (74A East 4th St. bet. Bowery and 2nd Ave.) in New York City and continues until April 17. Schedule: Thu - Fri at 8pm, Sat 8pm and 10pm. Running time: 1 hour and 15 minutes, no intermission. And Alice in Slasherland is now playing at HERE Arts Center (145 6th Ave. between Spring and Broome Sts.) in New York City and continues until April 10. Schedule: Thu - Sun at 8:30pm, also 4/10 at 4pm. Running time: 1 hour and 30 minutes, no intermission.