By Luchino Visconti, Nicola Badalucco, and Enrico Medioli;
Directed by Ivo van Hove
A Comedie-Francaise Production in Collaboration with Park Avenue Armory
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 7.28.18
Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Avenue
by Sarah Moore on 7.20.18
Clément Hervieu-Léger, Sylvia Bergé, Gioia Benenati, Madison Cluzel, and Adeline d'Hermy in The Damned. Photo by Stephanie Berger.
BOTTOM LINE: Ivo van Hove's powerful production of The Damned is haunting and spectacular.
The Comédie-Française production of The Damned, based on the screenplay for Luchino Visconti’s film, premiered at the Avignon Festival two years ago to great acclaim. The prescience, as we tumble through the second year of Donald Trump’s presidency, is quite remarkable. How could Ivo van Hove (who chose the piece well before the 2016 election) possibly have known that we in the U.S. would soon be dealing with an administration that puts children in cages?
The actors—all from the Avignon Festival production—enter in street clothes before changing onstage into the costumes of their characters. (The gorgeous costumes are by An D’Huys.) A live video feed allows the characters to be introduced via close-ups, with names and titles projected, to introduce the web of players, who are then followed around with cameras. All dialogue is in French with English titles.
Van Hove’s trademark spectacular minimalism is a perfect fit inside the Park Avenue Armory, an expansive space that allows the cinematic, live camera aspects of this production to thrive. The close-ups allow the audience to feel the tension of the individual relationships, while the enormous stage places the theatricality in contrast with the modern and cinematic elements. The epic scenic and lighting design is by Jan Versweyveld, notably with a neon orange floor (which represents fire, according to an interview in the program.)
Audiences should be warned: this is a difficult piece of theater, and certainly not an escapist story. The Damned tells the story of the Essenbeck family, and how they are destroyed by the rise of Nazi power in Germany. It's a comment on moral corruption, which here stems from politics and spreads to destroy the family from the inside.
The story begins as patriarch Baron Joachim von Essenbeck (Didier Sandre) is murdered on the night of the Reichstag Fire. Video projections of the fire place us in time and place. The family’s steel empire falls to the untrustworthy Konstantin (Denis Podalydès), as Herbert (Loïc Corbery) is framed for the crime and has to flee from the Gestapo for fear of his life. Many others are not as lucky, including his wife Elisabeth (Adeline d’Hermy). The Damned is an all-encompassing title that refers to not only the historical and political events, but also to the betrayal, revenge, and inevitable end for the Essenbecks and the others.
Visconti's lavish and decadent films are in opposition to van Hove's staging of The Damned, which takes advantage of the stark colors and open space of the Armory. (His production of Visconti’s Obsession was similarly staged and designed.) As per usual, van Hove doesn’t allow the audience to be comfortable: loud whistles punctuate each character death, and inner-coffin cams force us to watch closely as each character dies while the play continues below. (Video work is by frequent collaborator Tal Yarden.) Ashes are ritually poured after each death, preparing us for a van Hove coup de theatre in the final moments.
The production is successful on most counts, though the story is sometimes hard to follow, mostly because of the number of characters. The design is spectacular, and all performances are on point. As with most van Hove productions, if you enjoy his signature aesthetic, you will find something to love here. Of course the inverse is also true—this production won’t make fans out of van Hove haters.
It’s hard to separate xenophobic and fascist overtones from what’s happening around us in our country, as President Trump and President Putin appeared together recently, declaring that Russia had nothing to do with the 2016 election, despite evidence to the contrary. Van Hove leaves the parallels up to us to connect.
Yet amidst all the darkness, van Hove manages to get a laugh out of the audience, using something from his bag of tricks—but still surprising us—as Sophie (Elsa Lepoivre) runs barefoot outside the Armory to the city streets, seen by the audience on the live-feed camera. A woman walking her dog stared straight into the camera, looking confused. This mix of reality and theatricality—that’s what van Hove aims for.
(The Damned plays at the Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Avenue, through July 28, 2018. Running time is 2 hours 10 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Monday through Thursday at 7:30; Fridays at 8; and Saturdays at 8. Tickets are $85 and are available at armoryonpark.org or by calling 212-933-5812.)
The Damned is based on the work of Luchino Visconti, Nicola Badalucco, and Enrico Medioli. Directed by Ivo van Hove. Set and Lighting Design by Jan Versweyveld. Costume Design by An D'Huys. Video Design by Tal Yarden. Original Sound Design and Sound Concept by Eric Sleichim. Dramaturgy by Bart Van den Eynde. Stage Manager is Sarah Elizabeth Ford.
The cast is Sylvia Bergé, Gioia Benenati, Madison Cluzel, Lucy-Lou Marino, Éric Génovèse, Denis Podalydès, Alexandre Pavloff, Guillaume Gallienne, Elsa Lepoivre, Loïc Corbery, Adeline d'Hermy, Clément Hervieu-Léger, Jennifer Decker, Didier Sandre, Christophe Montenez, and Sebastien Baulain.