Whether the claims against Roman emperor Caligula are historically true — like how he enjoyed tossing random segments of sports-going crowds into an arena to be eaten by wild animals because he was bored — the name Caligula is synonymous with flippantly egomaniacal murder and debauchery.
So I was surprised to find myself agreeing with Albert Camus' version of the infamous tyrant in the opening moments of Balagula Theatre's production of the classic French play.
When Caligula reunites with his government advisers after his sister's death, which has traumatized him, he is appalled that the first thing they want to talk about is the treasury. To paraphrase Caligula, if money is the only thing of value, then people don't matter at all.
Caligula makes a lot of tongue-in-cheek jokes that satirically lambast bureaucracy. He also makes a lot of sense, at least at first.
But his commitment to logic, even as he is descending into madness, is ultimately what dooms him. The audience is left to conclude that logic alone can neither drive the heart of humanity nor shape its morality.
Director Natasha Williams deserves praise for bringing the opulence of Rome and the tragic nihilism of Camus' words to the small Balagula stage with a sense of epic urgency.
From a set design by Williams and Tom Willis that is elegant and streamlined to Joyce Anderson's gilded costuming, the production values feel rich and deserving of Caligula's indulgences.
Rob Thomas' original music also lends an epic flavor to the play without competing with the drama onstage.
And really, what could compete with that?
The stage is packed with an all-star cast, most of whom have headlined epic productions at one time or another.
Robert Parks Johnson, for instance, brings level-headed gravitas to his role as Cherea, the patrician brave enough to plot Caligula's demise and wise enough to do it at just the right time. Their tense exchange toward the play's end is electrifying.
And Laurie Genet-Preston's performance as Caesonia, Caligula's faithful lover, is richly layered, as are performances by Randy Hall as Helicon and Tim Hull as Scipio.
But make no mistake, this is the Ryan Case show, and his masterful portrayal of the troubled tyrant is the show's most glittering achievement. He digs deep into Caligula's psyche, exposing a deeply troubled soul tortured by his inability to change the most dismal aspect of reality, that "men die; and are unhappy."
Case's Caligula is more than a tortured tyrant though; he is a kind of mad genius with a very particular set of afflictions. Power without purpose. Logic without love. Isolation without solitude.
What elevates Case's performance to great is how he manifests Caligula's constantly shifting internal struggles, which make his external behavior increasingly disturbing, and fascinating.
His even greater achievement is that sometimes you have empathy for Caligula, even while he is committing some of the most vile acts imaginable. Other times, you cannot help but laughingly enjoy his antics, and admire his surprising turns of courage, even though it is obvious nothing will stop his cruel campaign except his own death.
There are a few roles that will define an actor long after a show ends. For Case, Caligula is one of them.