6 Questions with CALIGULA MAXIMUS Director and Co-writer Alfred Preisser

Posted by Lia Chang

6 Questions with CALIGULA MAXIMUS Director and Co-writer Alfred Preisser

Alfred Preisser (Co-Founder, Classical Theatre of Harlem) and Randy Weiners (owner of the notorious night spot, The Box) circus themed theatrical extravaganza CALIGULA MAXIMUS is currently playing at La MaMas Ellen Stewart Theatre through April 17th. Director Preisser has set CALIGULA MAXIMUS on the last night of the infamous dictators life.

Last summer, the pair collaborated on the script of ARCHIBISHOP SUPREME TARTUFFE, starring Andr De Shields, which had a sold-out run at the Harold Clurman Theater on Theater Row. The production received four Audelcos, including Outstanding Musical Production of The Year, Outstanding Performance in a Musical, Male (Andr De Shields), Outstanding Performance in a Musical, Female (Kim Brockington) and Outstanding Musical Director (Kelvyn Bell).

Their current collaboration CALIGULA MAXIMUS, stars Ryan Knowles as Caligula, adult film star and Penthouse Pet Justine Joli as his wife Caesonia, Lady Circus troupe aerialist Anya Sapozhnikova as his sister Drusilla, Luqman Brown as Sulla, the peanut vendor, JerZ Short as circus master Helicon. The show features award-winning competitive bodybuilders Myra Adams and Roxanne Edwards, Coney Island Sideshow tattooed muscleman Tim Dax and an outrageous collection of over two-dozen circus performers, wrestlers, showgirls and freaks.

Presented by La MaMa, e.t.c., CALIGULA MAXIMUS is a project with Hammerstein & Weiner, LLC, Christopher McElroen, Alfred Preisser and Kingsize, USA.

I sat down with Preisser preshow, to talk about his vision for CALIGULA MAXIMUS, his plans for the show after the run at La MaMa's Ellen Stewart Theatre and the projects he has in the works.

Preisser: To me, its about impulse, desire and hypocrisy. It's about what people say they are and what they want, as opposed to what they really are and what they really want. The play ends the way it does with Caligula stripped down to an ordinary person, who lives in Inwood, one of the less fashionable neighborhoods of New York. And that line is in the play because the actor playing Caligula actually lives in Inwood. People always laugh at that. They're not laughing at the fact he lives in Inwood. They are laughing at the fact that the guy pranced around for an hour and could f**k anything he wanted to and basically acted out their own inner desires. They're laughing at the fact that he was doing that for an hour and now is admitting that he's just like them. He's just a regular person. The show is similar to ARCHIBISHOP SUPREME TARTUFFE in that it's a show that celebrates people. Real desires. How we really are as opposed to how we want others to think we are. ARCHIBISHOP SUPREME TARTUFFE and this show are to me, shows that go right at what people actually are.

What was your vision for the circus theme at the Ellen Stewart Theatre?
Preisser: We don't know a lot about Caligula. One of the things that we do know is he threw these shows, and he liked to be the star of these shows. He thought he was the best actor and dancer, and would throw these entertainments-parties, displays of people and sex parties, with himself at the center of action. La MaMa's Ellen Stewart Theatre is a really big space. I thought that bringing people who could do things up in the air, off in the corner of the room, things like that would fill out the space, could also express that Caligulean party. Caligula is a creation of the collective unconscious of modern people. He was dead by the time he was 29. We know a few stories about orgies, cruelty and perversion, that turned him into this cult figure. The circus was a way to throw a party on the last night of his life and fill up that room.

What do think audiences will take away from CALIGULA MAXIMUS?
Preisser: A sense of joy and delight. Personal experience of their own inner freak. I think that most people are much more strange, freakish and sexually curious than they allow others to think. I think that's human nature and I think that's why we know Caligula's name. If somebody who had done the same things as a leader represented himself like Mitt Romney, then he would be completely lost in history.

The show has been extended twice. Do you have any plans for the show after it closes at La Mama?
Preisser: I think this show will probably go into a club style venue where it can be performed once, twice or three times a week, in a very special atmosphere like a midnight show, or a CALIGULA MAXIMUS party, or as a Caligula celebration. I think it should go into an atmosphere like that, where alcohol could be sold, where there are no fixed seats and where the experience is in the middle of people. It would be ideal because of the nature of the show and the nature of theater. People really want to see it. I think that's exactly what will happen. Also because my partners from the Box- Randy Weiner and Simon Hammerstein of Hammerstein and Weiner LLC, Matt Hanrahan of Kingsize U.S.A. and Chris McElroen, are involved with the show to promote it and provide a future life.

This is your first mainstage production since leaving the Classical Theatre of Harlem. What has it been like to work with a new cast of characters?
Preisser: Well, Im working with a lot of new people on this. I'm not turning over a new leaf or anything. To me, theater is the people that I work with. So thats still Kelvyn Bell, Tracy Jack and a half dozen actors for whom CTH was not just a theater but an expression of their essential selves. That hasn't changed.
CALIGULA MAXIMUS is a good project because it is a completely new direction from things that I had been working on. I've really enjoyed it. The salient point about the whole thing is how much freedom there is. People show up just because they just want to be in the show, do their juggling act, walk through the show nude or join the cast in The Cosmic Pool. It's a return to what theater really is.

Whats next for you?
Preisser: The day after Thanksgiving, we are opening our annual Christmas dance-concert BLACK NATIVITY NOW at the St. Clement's Theater in the Theater district. It's a technicolor gospel fantasy, a celebration of exuberant African American music and dance, which defined the very best of American culture. I'm looking to do a revival of Paul Carter Harrison's The Great MacDaddy in New York, a year from now. Paul's play is an epic, it hasn't been seen in over 30 years. It's one of the great American plays. I'd like to do a 40th anniversary multi-city tour of Melvin Van Peeble's seminal American spoken word musical, AINT SUPPOSED TO DIE A NATURAL DEATH in 2011. I have options on two smaller plays, Living in Exile and Black Panther Women, all of which I would like to open in the next 16-18 months. I am working with Randy on Dialogues of Plato's Retreat, a celebratory exploration of the notorious New York sex club. We have not let go of ARCHIBISHOP SUPREME TARTUFFE, starring Andre De Shields. We think it's one of the really tight shows we've ever done. Chris McElroen and I are launching our new production company, which may be the home for some or all of these titles.

Performances for CALIGULA MAXIMUS, at the Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 E. 4th St., are on Thursday and Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 8pm and 10pm, through April 17th. Tickets are $30, $25 for students and seniors and can be purchased online at http://www.lamama.org or by calling the box office at 212.475.7710. Tickets must be picked up at the box office which is located at 74A E. 4th St. For more information, visit www.caligulamaximus.wordpress.com.

Ellen Stewart Theatre
66 E. 4th St. (btwn 2nd Ave & The Bowery)
Tickets are $30, $25 for students and seniors