Sex sells, as Donald Trump's girls-versus-boys reality show The Apprentice has made abundantly clear, but there has to be more than skin. You need a slap and a tickle, neither of which Caligula delivers. It's dry and flaccid -- in short, a picture of frustrated conquests.
Director Christopher King, who mastered and commandeered last year's A Clockwork Orange, poses one of Rome's most infamous emperors as a personality that's part satyr and part narcissist -- with a pierced nipple. But as Chad Solomon plays him, he comes off as a priapic brat. He alternately feigns sadness and rage in a performance that's comparable to a wind-up toy with a broken yet squeaky wheel: He circles his prey and announces his plots loudly enough, but he's never really threatening. His Roman Empire is about as intense as a Tupperware party.
The show starts promisingly. To a cover band's version of the Go-Go's song "Our Lips Are Sealed," we see the ancient Capitol abuzz with news of Caligula's ascent. "Misfits happen in the best of empires," says one of Caligula's advisers, preparing us as best he can for Caligula's temper tantrums and bisexual inclinations, a combination the guy himself merely calls "a lesson in statesmanship."
Caligula's only fans are his bed partners -- his mistress, Cesonia (Sara Crow), and his boy toy, Scipio (Matthew K. McGaugh). His agenda is to stir unbridled passion in the masses; he's hellbent on creating distractions. On the evidence of a gluttonous feast, though, they're not biting. I've never seen a more depressed dinner party. The Act Two orgy goes a little better (including lots of simulated humping and sixty-nining), but it's preceded by a dance number with banners that makes Rob Lowe and Snow White's infamous Oscar number look like the Bolshoi Ballet.
The egomaniacal emperor becomes a sort of killing machine, but it's hard to take his lethality seriously. The cast lacks much connection to the issues at hand, a void not helped by a range of acting styles from eyebrow-arching melodrama to, well, no acting style (or skill) at all. The show may intend to dramatize the collapse of an empire, but when you're chuckling during a climactic death scene, it's not a good sign.
But don't tell the cast, the members of which have been so consistently affirmed they think they're the Royal Shakespeare Company. The curtain call goes on for an eternity, with actors who've had maybe five lines taking grandiose solo walks to the center spot. If only the show had channeled some of that pomposity into communicating moral decay.