Chicago Theater Review: ROMULUS (Oracle Theatre)

Post image for Chicago Theater Review: ROMULUS (Oracle Theatre)

by Lawrence Bommer on October 12, 2014

in Theater-Chicago


Following their productions of Brecht’s The Mother and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, venturesome Oracle Theatre brings us another thespian rarity. This fall’s find is Gore Vidal’s adaptation of Romulus by Friedrich Dürrenmatt (The Physicists, The Visit). Cleverly staged by Kasey Foster, this 90-minute curiosity is a playful, anachronistic, and subversive look at the last day of the Roman Empire (at least in the West). Too decadent to endure, this once-vast, now bankrupt realm is imploding under its own contradictions. Because history abhors a vacuum as much as nature, the proverbial barbarians are at the gates, namely Goth tribes under Odoacer (called Ottaker here) and his warrior nephew Theodoric.


Feebly opposing this first installment of the Middle Ages is Romulus, Rome’s supposed last emperor, ironically named after one of the co-founders of ancient Rome. Kevin Cox plays Durrenmatt’s cynical stoic with exasperating resignation and absolutely no resistance. On the fateful Ides of March (which, of course, requires an assassination attempt), Romulus, deaf to destiny, is in as much denial as The Wiz’s Evilene, the Wicked Witch of the West (“Don’t nobody bring me no bad news”). This last Augustus prefers to tend his chickens (named after his illustrious and notorious predecessors)—even though, symbolically or not, they won’t lay eggs as they used to. He’s equally henpecked by his imperious empress Julia (Susan Wingerter), intent on relocating the court to Sicily ASAP. Meanwhile, the purple royals haggle with art dealer Apollonius (Luke Daigle) as they sell off the imperial jewelry.


Presiding passively over his diminishing returns, Romulus dithers in his pool patio in Tivoli, sipping the last of the wine and delegating authority in all directions. Romulus is eager for an endgame, mainly “to do nothing at all.” He discounts news of defeat from his prefect Titus (also Daigle). To the fury of his remaining entourage and generals, he means to surrender to the Goths’ “manifest destiny.” His minions hope to thwart the inevitable by fighting the invaders with propaganda (“Progress and Slavery”) or by selling the empire to entrepreneur Otto Rupf (a flamboyant Jeremy Trager) who’s made a fortune by inventing trousers (togas are out forever). This Teutonic fop wants to wed the royal daughter Rea (Alexis Randolph) but she’s preoccupied pretending to be Antigone. So many exit strategies for one cruel fate.


The final paradox arrives with the triumphant and unbribable Goths (clad and armed like American troops). Far from a successful sacker of cities, their chieftain Ottaker (Miguel Nunez) is himself under the sway of ruthless Theodoric (Colin Morgan), who’s destined to destroy him. If Romulus is lost in the past, Ottaker is already consumed by the future. Happily, it’s not a total impasse: They both love poultry. Anyway, all that matters is the moment.

Oracle_ROMULUS_cred_Joe-Mazza-Brave Lux

The author called this toga-party caprice “an historical play with no historical basis.” It certainly plays fast and loose with facts and legends. You can see why Vidal was drawn to its political pronouncement of a “plague on both their houses.”  Ultimately it’s a daffy parable, a cautionary trifle, and a stylized romp (not unlike the travesty “Springtime for Hitler” inside The Producers). The deft ten-member ensemble fills Oracle’s crowded stage with well-crafted caricatures of corruption in action. Inevitably, these mirrors reflect our own embattled empire.

Oracle_ROMULUS_cred_Joe-Mazza, Brave-Lux

photos by Joe Mazza, Brave Lux
poster design by Evelyn DeHais

Public Access Theatre
Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway
Fri, Sat and Mon at 8; Sun at 7
scheduled to end on November 22, 2014
for tickets, visit

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