'The Damned': Theater Review

Courtesy of Jan Versweyveld
Elsa Lepoivre in 'The Damned'
In terms of emotional impact, more like the darned.
7/28/2018

Acclaimed theater director Ivo van Hove stages this ambitious multimedia adaptation of the screenplay for Luchino Visconti's 1969 film classic.

Adapted from the screenplay for Luchino Visconti's 1969 film of the same name, The Damned attempts to pull you into its decadent world of early 1930s Germany as the Nazis were in their evil ascendency. Like the film, the theatrical piece depicts the moral compromises, fateful inaction and complicity of various figures of the fictional von Essenbeck clan during the period from the 1933 burning of the Reichstag to the following year's Night of the Long Knives. It's a powerful, unfortunately timely tale whose impact should be momentous. Instead, the Comedie-Francaise production directed by acclaimed avant-garde director Ivo van Hove (Broadway's A View From the Bridge and The Crucible) diffuses the story's emotional impact by relentlessly calling attention to its cleverness.

The most obvious example of the production's self-consciousness is its extensive emphasis on video projections, a theatrical device that, even as it has vastly improved technologically, has by now become a shopworn cliche. Footage of the actors, often in extreme close-up, is filmed by two onstage videographers and projected on a giant LED screen at the rear of the vast playing area.

Sometimes we see lengthy shots of inanimate objects or historical footage, and occasionally the camera is trained upon the audience. You find your eyes consistently drawn to the screen, even when actors are playing scenes that aren't being filmed. And when the audience members are seen filling the screen, it's obvious that most people are searching for themselves like they would at a sports stadium. One man even jauntily waved at the camera. (As for the presumed intention of making the audience feel complicit, it was done far more effectively 50 years ago with scenic designer Boris Aronson's use of a mirror in the original production of Cabaret, set in the same era.)

The rigorous meta-theatricality doesn't end there. A dressing-room-like area, complete with illuminated mirrors, sits at one end of the stage. It allows us to see the performers in various states of undress while they change into and out of their costumes, as if we need reminding that they're just actors playing roles (handsome skivvies, though). At one point a major female character clad only in a nightgown leaves the stage and exits the Park Avenue Armory through the front door, the cameraperson right behind her. The startled expressions of the passers-by on the street were priceless and elicited large guffaws from the audience. To say the moment dissipated the evening's hard-fought intensity is an understatement.

It's a shame, because the story is undeniably powerful and resonant, filled with memorable characters. They include the von Essenback family patriarch, Joachim (Didier Sandre); his son Konstantin (Denis Podalydes), who has no compunction about cooperating with the Nazis; the principled but ineffectual vice president of the von Essenbeck family's steel company (Loic Corbery); the aptly named SS officer Wolf (Eric Genovese); Joachim's Lady Macbeth-style daughter-in-law, Sophie (Elsa Lepoivre, the standout of the superb ensemble); and her licentious, mascara- and high-heel-wearing son Martin (Christophe Montenez).

Unfortunately, the constant technical intrusions make the complex storyline and numerous characters hard to follow at times. A familiarity with the film would be a definite advantage, especially since such events as one character being tarred and feathered actually represent something quite different.

The production staged by von Hove with his constant collaborator Jan Versweyveld (credited with scenography and lighting design) certainly proves visually and sonically arresting. Much of the imagery is undeniably striking, such as the close-up footage of characters silently screaming in their graves, a nude encounter on the slicked-up stage between two of the men, and the copious representations of blood and ash as the Nazis begin their reign of terror.

Tal Yarden's complex video designs and Eric Sleichim's sound effects, especially the piercing noises that accompany the performers as they frequently stop what they're doing to make a formation and stare impassively at the audience in accusatory fashion, lend a visceral jolt to the ominous proceedings.

The director has been much acclaimed for his ambitious productions, many of which use similar technical gimmickry. But for my money he's most effective working in minimalist mode, such as his brilliant Greek tragedy-like staging of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge. When he pulls out too many items from his extensive bag of tricks, such as he does here, he just seems to be trying too hard. You should come away from The Damned deeply shaken and emotionally devastated. Instead, you simply feel worn-out. It makes you desperately hope that he shows more restraint with his just-announced Broadway production of West Side Story, due late next year. 

Venue: Park Avenue Armory, New York
Cast: Sylvia Berge, Eric Genovese, Denis Podalydes, Alexandre Pavloff, Guillaume Gallienne, Elsa Lepoivre, Loic Corbery, Adeline d'Hermy, Clement Hervieu-Leger, Jennifer Decker, Didier Sandre, Christophe Montenez, Sebastien Baulain
Director: Ivo van Hove
Set and lighting designer: Jan Versweyveld
Costume designer: An D'Huys
Video designer: Tal Yarden
Sound designer: Eric Sleichim
Dramaturgy: Bart Van den Eynde
Production: Comedie-Francaise
Presented by Park Avenue Armory and Comedie-Francaise