Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Not being up on my history of the Roman Empire, I was not sure how much of the play, written by company founding member Matt Spring but developed collaboratively by the ensemble, is based on fact. It all seems so far-fetched: Commodus' gladiatorial matches against giraffes, ostriches and other beasts? The wacky failed assassination attempts against him? His endless round of official "games" in which he himself competed? Declaring himself the incarnation of Hercules? Was Commodus' himself even a real historic figure, or a figment of the Four Humors' fertile imaginations? Astonishingly, it is all true, more or less, though with liberties taken in the telling of the tale, and in those liberties lies the fun.
When he was only fifteen, Commodus was appointed by his father, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, to serve as his co-emperor. Marcus Aurelius was the last of what is sometimes called the Era of the Five Good Emperors, also known as the Pax Romana. Commodus was his sole surviving son, and in spite of indications that he was ill suited for the role, Marcus Aurelius wanted to pass his power down through his family line. Only three years later, in 180 CE, Marcus Aurelius died in battle against Germanic tribes, making Commodus, at age 18, the Emperor of the Roman Empire.
After his death, a collection of Marcus Aurelius' writings, "The Meditations," was published, giving advice as to the wise rule of a nation. Commodus patently ignored his father's sage advice, though in the play, his father's ghost periodically pesters him with recommendations from "The Meditations." Rather, Commodus left the running of the empire to a series of ineffectual chamberlains. Commodus focused on his "games"an obsession that Spring has fun with, as the boy-emperor gives himself the moniker "The Game Guy." Meanwhile, he brings the empire's once robust economy to its knees.
Spring frames The Last Days of Commodus as a pageant being performed by a group of itinerant players in the dark days after the fall of the empire. There is some humor squeezed out of this device, but it doesn't add much to the thrust of the show. Things get interesting when they begin the recitation of Commodus and his follies. Director Jason Ballweber, also a company member, maintains an arch atmosphere throughout, drawing every ounce of the ridiculous out of this more-or-less true page from history. He manages the sudden scene changes and actors' transitions from one character to another with the aplomb of a sidewalk huckster shuffling overturned cups and challenging passers-by to pick the one with the ball inside.
The troupe of five game actors handle the material with high style. Ryan Lear, as Commodus, is the only actor who plays only one character. He masterfully conveys the emperor's narcissism and dull wit, with an effeminate affect that contrasts sublimely with his brawny battles against men and beasts. In Lear's hands, the emperor's fits of anger are much funnier than they have any right to be.
Brant Miller, another founding member of Four Humors, entertains as Marcus Aurelius (alive and as a ghost), as well as Commodus' workout buddy and Paris, leader of the traveling band of players. Madeleine Rowe, Nissa Nordland Morgan and Kathryn Fumie play a host of senators, wives, chamberlains, soldiers, and other characters who figure in this unlikely story. All three are high energy performers, with Fumie particularly making a mark as Saoterus, the first of Commodus' series of chamberlains, and Morgan scores as Marcia, Commodus' mistress and political confidante at the time of his assassination.
Tech and design credits are clearly based on modest budgeting, but serve the "let's put on a wild and crazy show" vibe of the piece, although those animal heads are pretty impressive. An especially witty touch is the change in Commodus' wardrobe after becoming emperor: he dons a white tennis sweater over his Roman wear. Projections are cleverly used to clue us in as to what really happened as opposed to the "official reports" from Commodus or his henchmen.
The Last Days of Commodus comes to an almost jubilant ending ... but that would be too simple for the Four Humors. The ending they have devised instead is far more unsettling, but that is just what is needed to bring home the realitythis was some bizarre, whacko stuff happening all those centuries ago, but that wasn't the last time governments have run amok, leaders serve for their own pleasure and profit, and citizens are blinded by civic spectacle. Maybe we better keep our eyes open.
All that serious business aside, The Last Days of Commodus is a gathering of of silly business and sardonic wit that amuses if you don't think about it too muchwhich, one supposes, was Commodus' idea all along.
Four Humors' The Last Days of Commodus, through April 20, 2019, at Strike Theater, 824 18th Ave NE, Minneapolis MN. All tickets are pay as you wish. For information or tickets go to www.fourhumorstheater.com.
Writer: Matt Spring; Director: Jason Ballweber; Set and Props Design: Derek Lee Miller; Costume Design: Maddi Johnson; Lighting Design: John Kirchhofer; Sound and Projections Design: Brant Miller; Stage Manager: Nissa Nordland Morgan.
Cast: Yvonne Ingrid Freese, Kathryn Fumie, Ryan Lear, Brant Miller, and Madeleine Rowe.