The first thing you'll notice when entering House of Yes for Caligula Maximus is that you are staring at a fully naked man. Sure, there are other performers gyrating and rubbing all over the room, but it is difficult to ignore the one guy on the center platform, bouncing around in nothing but a pair of Air Jordans. And due to the manner in which The House Of Yes is set up, this dancer is set right in the middle of the audience with his swinging member just about eye level. It is certainly a shocking display, and one most of us do not see everyday. A small crowd is gathered around him, watching intently, while others line the edge of the ring, bashfully peeking and then quickly turning away.
Perhaps this is the moment that best embodies the new version of Caligula Maximus, a performance that is not so much as show as it is a raunchy cabaret routine. It is a subjective night; how you decide to handle it is fully up to you.
The original (sold out) run of Alfred Preisser and Randy Weiner's Caligula Maximus was held at La MaMa's Ellen Stewart Theatre. At the end the show was extended, with Penthouse donating complimentary issues of their magazines to the audience. It is no surprise that the writers decided to go for a second round, this time in a location with even more freedom. One March 31st previews began for this new-fangled, overhauled version of the show at House Of Yes in Brooklyn, now advertised as an "all-singing all-dancing spectacle."
Caligula Maximus still (loosely) retains the same story line, telling the tale of dictator Caligula Maximus' final night alive. Underground star Kayvon Zand leads the cast in the role of Helicon, with Jamin Ruhren (Acid Betty) as Caligula. These two have no trouble owning the stage and audience space, effortlessly stalking around in treacherously high heels while barking out orders or seducing dancers. Their outfits are fantastic, and they tame the crowd with sweeps of their long shiny skirts and stares from under their dramatically painted eyelids.
The acrobatics are performed by Lady Circus, and the three trapeze artists are clearly comfortable with the space. They offer some of the best moments, swinging from ribbon to ribbon, flexing muscles and lifting and lowering one another in an effortless manner. However, it would have been great to see more of their tricks, as they only performed during the short musical numbers.
Some of the moments seemed poorly planned for the space. With no backstage to retreat to a bound and naked "slave" gets carried through the audience with her legs spread wide apart on a pole- a move that confused some surprised attendees who were suddenly confronted three inches from their faces. Close-call nudity aside, the blocking was continuously difficult for the actors to navigate. At various moments cast members jumping and rushing from the stairs to the platforms hastily and literally shoved aside people in the audience. These sorts of actions are certainly the downfall of staging an off the stage show in a loft room like House Of Yes, particularly when your audience is standing and constantly moving around.
The sound system is also a bit of an issue, as the low level of the music and vocals takes us out of Caligula's world. People in the audience were easily able to discuss what they would be getting from the bar, and dramatic musical numbers were anticlimactic and easily dismissed. This was unfortunate since the cast's vocals are stellar, a fact that still shone through in spite of the oddly low levels. The singers would almost be better off just belting out their lyrics without the mics; it is a shame to hear so little of them.
The overhaul of Caligula Maximus has allowed the performance to lose its "play" qualities and morph into a semi nude variety show, something that seems to please most of the audience by the end of the night. The shocked looks fade away and an overall acceptance washes over the room. As Zand says "The show is like a one night stand. You enter with an open mind, stay with open pants and leave with an open heart." Perhaps he is right. The nude go-go dancer returns at the end of the performance, and everyone looks up eagerly. But this time he has underwear on. And you know what? We all feel a little dissapointed.