On a broad stage, with dressing rooms, costumes and makeup tables in pure sight, and six coffins awaiting on the other side for what is to come, extreme exposure is the theme of the night. And with cameras poised and aimed, projected onto the large screen (video designer: Tal Yarden), just below the english subtitles, the procedures begin with a rumbling that vibrates into our heart and soul. Staring out at us, the large cast from the Comédie-Française production that had its world premiere at the Avignon Festival in July, 2016 assembles before us, attempting to wake us up out of a distracted numbed ‘Twitter-overloaded’ stance to pay attention to what happened back then, and what could happen now if we sit idly by.
What this talented group of actors go through each night is just astounding, challenging and intense, rolling and sliding through the “Ritual of Evil” that director Ivo van Hove (Broadway’s The Crucible) has installed most spectacularly within the great Wade Thompson Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory. It is epic in proportions, designed meticulously by scenography and lighting designer Jan Versweyveld, culminating in a formation on a fiery orange canvas where this rich, powerful but cold Essenbeck family gather. They stare out in defiance, symbolically similar to the iconic dining table in the 1969 Luchino Visconti film which this play was most magnificently adapted from. In the film, a growing number of empty seats ominously make reference to the family members that have been brutally taken away because of the actions of those who remain. And here, on stage, the statuesque gathering becomes the symbol of the less crowded table, with the mirrored dining table accessories informing the ritual of transformation and descent. It is Shakespearean in form, majestic and hypnotizing, like the great tragedies, King Lear, Hamlet, and Macbeth, all poured together like the ashes of the murdered center stage, combined into one huge historical construct of melodrama and the infectious disease of greed, power, and domination.
After the frighteningly abrasive whistle blows, archival footage of the burning of the Reichstag, home of the German parliament is projected onto the LED screen, setting a historical and iconic stance before us of such immediate political significance that it can’t be ignored or lumped into an old chapter in a history book. Much like the similarly themed The Handmaid’s Tale, currently wrecking havoc on our sensibilities on Hulu, the similarities to our current predicament is horrifying, as that moment in world history is culminated with Hitler issuing a decree that suspended most civil liberties, including freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and the right of public assembly all in the name of security. Feels like Trump and/or his followers have been reading the guidebook of dissent and power=play chaos, taking notes on Hitler’s conscious fueling of an ever-growing hysteria and fear of Communism and its threat to the middle and upper classes of Germany, resulting in the Enabling Act effectively transforming Hitler’s government into a legal, and ultimately deadly dictatorship.
And with that short piece of projected film, The Damned dives into the tragic thread at the center of this tale of politics and power, where a Mother, the Baronne Sophie von Essenbeck, played with stone cold fortitude by Elsa Lepoivre, who cares little for her son, Martin, portrayed with decedent aggressiveness by the magnificent Chrsitophe Montenez. She casts him aside as a useless fool, and implants her lover, Friedrich Bruckmann, played by the fist-pounding sordidness of Guillaume Gallienne, as the head of her empire, while she casually and uncaringly watches her two brothers, Baron Konstantin von Essenbeck (Denis Podalydès) and Herbert Thallman (Loïc Corbery) fight basically to the death for a power that they have little chance of holding on to.
In what Ivo van Hove suggests is the most important dynamic, the sensitive and troubled Günther, played simply and uncomfortably by the sweet-natured Clément Hervieu-Léger, as well as the love starved sexual predator, Martin are the ones that slowly take on the mantle of change and de-evolution, rising out of the ashes and blood of awkward innocence. And even though, Martin’s amoral sexually deviant playboy, dressed in heels and gender non-specific costumes that eventually give way to more conservative structure by the impeccable An D’Huys, who is secretly molesting his young cousin as well as a poor Jewish girl is perverse, they are both seen as completely apolitical at the onset, but slowly, they both begin to hate, learning and transforming them into killers, tools of the grand manipulator of destruction, revenge, and ideology. Each move and twist is illuminated with sound and fury like a deadly game of musical chairs, with intense original sound design by Eric Sleichim, editing down the formation as the bodies become encapsulated inside the caskets lined up on stage left.
It’s high theatrics, much like Ivo Van Hove’s much heralded A View From the Bridge that illuminated Broadway and the intricacies of Arthur Miller’s play itself with such vibrancy that one couldn’t deny its guttural power. The metaphoric directions and abstract and symbolic deaths pile on the discomfort with an exceedingly creative eye, but where that previous production excelled in emotionality, The Damned falters, never really finding its way to connect on a deeper level, remaining solidly in the intellectual yet disturbing sphere, rather than making our heart play a role in the proceedings. And when the cameras turn on our faces, we experience the uncomfortable feeling of being observers of destruction, passively, which in the end is the warning that scratches at our skin. Ivo van Hove suggests that “the world is undergoing radical change” and the play’s resolution “is absolutely horrible“, a world in which we really do not want to live. It’s reminiscent of the Germans turning a blind eye to the radicalized Nazi regime, and its abominations. As is the case in Picasso’s gloriously disturbing painting, Guernica, there is no trace of joy in this world, only war, death and destruction. “But it is better to face that in art than in real life…and to hold on to the idea that, like according to Herbert, despite everything, love and humanism cannot ever completely disappear“. And the only way to assure that is to find the desire to stand up and resist. To not passively watch as if we are just an audience at a play. So in the end, we stand and applaud the work and vision of Ivo van Hove, but also finding that we must discover the fiery desire to stand up for our principles and humanity, or this fascist wave of populist extreme right and the hatred and violence it may bring will find its way into our modern world, if it hasn’t already.