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Off Broadway

The Damned and the Complicity of Us All

The Damned and the Complicity of Us All

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.

Park Ave. Armory
Stage: ensemble cast; Screen: Adelin D’hermy (Elisabeth Thallman). Photo by Stephanie Berger.

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.

Park Ave. Armory
Denis Podalydès (Baron Konstantin Von Essenbeck), Sébastien Baulain (Janeck). Photo by Stephanie Berger.

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.

Park Ave. Armory
Jennifer Decker (Olga), Christophe Montenez (Martin Von Essenbeck). Photo by Stephanie Berger.

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.

Park Ave. Armory
Stage: Christophe Montenez (Martin Von Essenbeck); Screen: Elsa Lepoivre (Baronne Sophie Von Essenbeck). Photo by Stephanie Berger.

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.

Park Ave. Armory
Elsa Lepoivre (Baronne Sophie Von Essenbeck), Christophe Montene (Martin Von Essenbeck).
Photo by Stephanie Berger.

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.

Park Ave. Armory
Stage: Christophe Montenez (Martin Von Essenbeck); Screen: Denis Podalydès (Baron Konstantin Von Essenbeck) in Ivo van Hove’s The Damned at Park Avenue Armory. Photo by Stephanie Berger.
Park Ave. Armory
The Damned” A Comédie Française Production Presented in Collaboration with Park Avenue Armory. Photographed on opening night performance, July 17, 2018. Based on Luchino Visconti, Nicola Badalucco, and Enrico Medioli’s Work. Ivo van Hove, Director; Jan Versweyveld, Scenography and Lighting Designer; An D’Huys, Costume Designer; Tal Yarden, Video Designer; Eric Sleichim, Original Sound Designer and Sound Concept; Bart van den Eynde, Dramaturgy. CAST: Sylvia Berge-The Nurse and Lisa’s mother; Eric Genovese-Wolf von Aschenbach; Denis Podalydes_-Baron von Essenbeck; Alexandre Pavloff-the Commissioner and Rector; Guillaume Gallienne-Friedrich Bruckmann; Elsa Lepoivre-Baronne Sophie von Essenbeck; Loic Corbery-Herbert Thallman; Adeline d’Herby-Elisabeth Thallman; Clement Hervieu-Leger-Gunther von Essenbeck; Jennifer Deckrer-Olga; Didier Sandre-Baron Joachim von Essenbeck; Christophe Montenez -Martin von Essenbeck; Sebastian Baulain-Janeck. Photo Credit: Stephanie Berger.
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Off Broadway

My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to

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