WSC Avant Bard Les JustesBy Joe Adcock • Feb 18th, 2012 • Category: Reviews
WSC Avant Bard
Artisphere, Arlington, VA
Through March 11th
1:30, no intermission
$35/PWYC On Saturday matinees
Reviewed February 17th, 2012
In one of his poems, Bertolt Brecht said it in one sentence: “We who would lay the foundations of kindness could not ourselves be kind.” Brecht was Communist, the darling of East Germany’s fundamentalist Stalinist regime. As an opportunistic supporter and pampered beneficiary of totalitarianism, Brecht didn’t need to bother with ambiguity or ambivalence. The solutions to all of humanity’s problems were right there in black and white. Lenin had settled any questions that Marx — who never actually experienced “real socialism” — had left unanswered.
One strident sentence like Brecht’s, however, was not enough for the French ex-Communist Albert Camus. He had been expelled from The Party because of his inability to refrain from questioning unquestionable Marxist/Leninist dogmas. He irritated the infallible dogmatists of his day. In his 1949 play Les Justes Camus portrays fanatical revolutionaries — bomb-throwing terrorists. Les Justes (the justified ones) is based on a real incident. In 1905 a group of Russian socialist revolutionaries assassinated the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, governor of Moscow and the Tzar’s uncle.
The current WSC Avant Bard production of Les Justes condenses Camus’ five acts into one. The play consists largely of self-justification and rationalization along the lines presented in Brecht’s highly condensed poem. Translator adapter Rahaleh Nassri and director Jay Hardee make clear that Camus’ characters’ extreme unkindness is intended to lay the foundations for kindness, justice, equality, love, happiness and every sort of wellbeing. These blessings were to be delivered in some distant utopian future. The vehemence of the repetitious declarations of good intentions are convincing only in one sense. They convince the audience that these five characters are desperately trying to convince themselves that the end (utopia) justifies the means (bombs.)
A simple complication injects a bit of anti-dogma. The designated bomb-thrower, Yanek, lets the archduke’s car go by unharmed because sitting on either side of the intended victim are his niece and his nephew. Yanek is all for terrorism if the victim is a notorious autocrat. But children? Murdering children is too much for Yanek. However, he’ll get a second chance at being a slow-motion suicide bomber. (It is a given that terrorist will be caught in the act and eventually hanged.)
Yanek’s reluctance to kill children gives the loathsome Stepan a chance to make derogatory remarks about the failed assassin’s fear and bourgeois scruples and squeamishness. Revolutionary solidarity with a fellow radical is not part of Stepan’s strategy for smashing the state. Stepan is actually Camus’ invention. No such character was part of the grand duke assassination plot. Stepan is apparently a stand-in for Lenin. Like Lenin, he escaped from prison and fled to Switzerland and then snuck back into Russia. Like Lenin, he is one of those guys who is all for killing, but doesn’t kill. He is a proponent of deadly violence, but he is a survivor. He admits he hates people, but he claims to love humanity.
Yanek’s second attempt at heroic terrorism is successful (this time the grand duke was not accompanied by children.) Yanek quickly finds himself in jail, eager for his impending illustrious death.
At that point strident rhetoric gives way to far more subtle dialogue. As a secret police agent, Graham Pilato uses the full register of persuasive speech, ranging from implied threats to intimations of deliverance. His tone slides from caressing to ironic and back. In fact he even gives Yanek (played by James T. Majewski) a few caresses on his rigid back. If only Yanek will denounce terrorism and plead for forgiveness, things might go well for him. Then along comes forgiveness itself in the form of the grand duke’s wife, played with restrained hysteria by Karen Novack. The half-mad duchess finds succor in religion, and she urges Yanek to follow her edifying example. Yanek, who speaks mostly in manifestoes, is offended by the prospect of anything but a martyrdom that will somehow further the revolutionary cause.
A bit of ghoulish comic relief is provided by Brian Crane as a just plain murderous murderer, no ideological justification required. As he mops up Yanek’s cell, this character lets it be known that he is the prison’s executioner: a year off his sentence for every hanging he performs.
And love interest? Not much.
Nora Achrati plays Dora, the revolutionaries’ designated bomb-maker. One of her artifacts apparently killed her former lover, who somehow handled it improperly. Like Yanek, Dora speaks mostly in vehement manifestoes. But Achrati makes it clear that she finds Yanek attractive. And the sometimes flighty Yanek reciprocates in his straitlaced puritanical way. Once Yanek is dead, Stepan, played with a wide streak of viciousness by John Stange, admits that he was jealous of Yanek — presumably because of Dora’s fondness for him and also because, at least as nostalgia, Yanek could express joie de vivre.
Underscoring the plotters’ moral/political poverty are costumes by Jen Bevan and a setting by David C. Ghatan. Everything is either black or white. When Pilato (playing the policeman) comes in wearing gray and speaking in modulated tones, suddenly the ethical landscape broadens. The duchess and the executioner wear red, offering intimations of blood — staining the sterile world of abstract political theory and heartless tactics. The walls of Ghatan’s scenery slide forward and back, suitable for either a cramped prison cell or a large, barren, unfurnished subversives’ safe house.
The WSC Les Justes gives some timely insight into the psychology of terror and suicide bombing. Les Justes is far less subtle and probing, however, than Dostoevsky’s 1872 story “The Possessed” or the “Grand Inquisitor” chapter of his “Brothers Karamazov.” As one who barely escaped being hanged for subversion, and who then did hard time in prison, Dostoevsky was an expert when it came to the sorrows of fanaticism.
Les Justes doesn’t touch at all on one of the mundane motives for terrorism — ambition. Lenin, a virtuoso of ambition, allegedly told his daughter that, although he was an accomplished pianist, he could not allow himself to play Beethoven’s sonatas. If he were to do so, he would be tempted to believe that a society that could produce anything so wonderful and perfect couldn’t be all that bad. Such a sentiment might undermine the revolutionary ambition of a tyrant-in-waiting.
A Note From the Director
When I first read Rahaleh Nassri’s excellent adaptation of Albert Camus’ Les Justes I knew I wanted to direct it because I was struck by just how much I would love to play any of the roles. Each character is so tantalizing, richly rendered in a blend of vivid color, even if their worldview is starkly black and white. Each, at one point or another, surprised me as they revealed all the contradictions and complexities that make them human. In turns, I empathized with, feared, loved and reviled each of the nine speaking characters in this play. I am thrilled to get to tell their stories. I want to thank Rahaleh for entrusting them with me.
Photos by C. Stanley Photography
- Annenkov: Frank Britton
- Dora: Nora Achrati
- Stepan: John Stange
- Voinov: Theo Hadjimichael
- Yanek: James T. Majewski
- Doorman/Guard: Josh Speerstra
- Foka: Brian Crane
- Skuratov: Graham Pilato
- Grand Duchess: Karen Novack
- Scenic Designer: David C. Ghatan
- Lighting Designer: David C. Ghatan
- Costume Designer: Jen Bevan
- Sound Designer: David Crandall
- Properties Designer: Lynn Sharp Spears
- Stage Manager: Maggie Clifton
- Assistant Stage Manager: Lisa K. Blythe
- Director: Jay Hardee
Disclaimer: WSC Avant Bard provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/7671.
Joe Adcock lives in Arlington with his wife, daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren. Before retiring last year at age 70, he was theater critic at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for 27 years. Prior to that, he reviewed plays for the Philadelphia Bulletin, the Texas Observer and the Swarthmore College Phoenix. Non-reviewing journalistic jobs include writing for the Houston Chronicle, the San Juan (Puerto Rico) Star and El Mundo de San Juan. Think about it: most of the papers he worked for no longer exist. Maybe this internet gig has better longevity prospects.