To insult a girl in the style of the French revolutionaries, calling her “a stained bordello bed sheet”—as stage prompter Simon does to one of his conquests—might do the trick. Memorable lines like this one hint at the sex and violence of “Danton’s Death,” the Georg Büchner drama which runs on the Loeb Mainstage through April 10. Set during the Reign of Terror, the play follows the downfall of Jacobin leader Georges Danton (Benjamin T. Clark ’09), who becomes disenchanted with the Revolutionary Government and is subsequently sent to the guillotine by the power-hungry Maximilien Robespierre (Felix L. J. Cook ’13). The show—though bolstered by a number of solid performances—is ultimately a disappointment, as it suffers from poor pacing, repetitive dialogue, incongruous technical elements, and a downright painful running time.
The play—directed by James M. Leaf ’10—opens with the bloodthirsty enthusiasm characteristic of the early days of the French Revolution. “Only cowards die for the Republic,” Danton thunders to a crowd of eager peasants. “Jacobins kill for it!” This violent passion in Danton’s early days finds a corollary in his sexual appetite. An unabashed patron of whorehouses, the Revolutionary leader immerses himself fully in the sensual pleasures of life, even cheekily noting, “What a bore it is to have to put on pants each day,” as he zips up his trousers from yet another illicit romp.
Eventually, however, Danton grows disillusioned with his decadent lifestyle, halfheartedly declaring, “We didn’t make the Revolution—the Revolution made us.” Originally a haphazardly charismatic character, Danton grows embittered when his initial quests for pleasure through women and wine start to feel like the listless idles of a cynic. Even in his final hours, Danton proves remotely unmoved by his impending demise; he reflectively admits one dark night, “I am merely flirting with death—it’s all empty noise, bravado.” Clark portrays this shift in Danton’s character effectively; his natural stage presence allows him to convincingly convey both freewheeling enthusiasm and downtrodden despair.
Unfortunately for Danton, this newfound disillusionment proves deadly, as the infamous Robespierre refuses to stand for his political and ideological subversion. Easily the most chilling presence on stage, Cook is the picture of abstemiousness—his severely prim, impeccably polished demeanor matched by his trimly-tailored gray suit. His carefully reasoned and perfectly elocuted speeches to the peasants are punctuated with raucous cries of agreement, which make many of his scenes evoke the structure of a preacher’s call-and-response sermon.
As for the rest of the cast, a few notable performances stand out. The prostitutes Rosalie (Candice C. Smith ‘11) and Adelaide (Victoria J. Crutchfield ’10) are especially skilled in physical acting—their swaying, sipping, and shimmying visually convey a breezy sexuality. In a completely different vein, Adriana I. Colón ‘12 is smart, snappy, and sharply-dressed in her portrayal of Louis de Saint-Just, creating a commanding on-stage presence which complements Robespierre’s own severity.
Despite these generally strong performances, the show is much too long, and the plot drags heavily in the middle. Suffering from surfeit scene changes and repetitive, pedantic monologues on life, sex, morality, and meaning, the show’s pacing quickly becomes bogged down in the mire of political and philosophical musings. The action also becomes unnecessarily convoluted in the middle acts, with the confusing web of deception and devious plotting further detracting from the play’s potential dramatic effect. At two hours, the show feels wearying; at almost three, it borders on insufferable.
Musically, the production makes occasional use of the vocal talents of Stewart N. Kramer ’12, whose powerful voice opens the show with a rousing, half-drunk chorus of “Vive la Compagnie.” He also briefly appears as a sage street performer singing for his supper. For its many scene transitions, the show too-frequently utilizes the Johnny Cash song “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” a catchy, yet repetitive tune which rather abruptly jerks the listener out of eighteenth-century France and into the bluesy world of the American South.
Also jarring is the show’s set, designed by Todd Weekley. A mishmash of wooden furniture, the piles of chairs, tables, and desks strewn about the stage evoke nothing of Revolutionary France, but instead resemble the Dorm Crew storage closet. The most successful props are a few large wooden tumbrels, which provide a versatile playground for the actors as they use the handsome carts to labor, seduce, and persecute. As a perfunctory nod to the French national motto, “liberté,” “égalité,” and “fraternité” are scrawled graffiti-like in blood-red paint on banners which loom in the rafters high above the stage.
In terms of other technical elements, it is clear that the aesthetic guiding much of the costuming—by Elyssa Jakim ’10—draws straight from the 1980 musical “Les Misérables,” particularly in the case of the peasants. The actors are mostly clad in shabby fringed shawls, diaphanous white blouses, snug black corsets, and long, full skirts. Danton’s attire, however, is decidedly anachronistic, for he shambles about like a lazy grad student in untucked button-down and dark-wash jeans.
Ultimately, the show’s oppressive length, tedious scene changes, and convoluted philosophizing obfuscate the majority of its positive elements, which are primarily found in the actors. Perhaps most frustratingly, the production takes what could have been a compelling period epic and spoils it with sluggish direction. The show’s many detriments—coupled with a muddled, slow-moving plot—cause “Danton’s Death” to lose the thrill and excitement that its decidedly dramatic premise could have produced.
—Staff writer Clio C. Smurro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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