The Spectacle of The Damned

by Michael Gross Photographed by Stephanie Berger
Thursday, July 19, 2018

The cast of Comédie-Francaise’s stage adaptation of Luchino Visconti’s 1969 film The Damned at the Park Avenue Armory can be forgiven for seeming a bit shell-shocked during their curtainless curtain call on Wednesday night, the second night of the production’s North American premiere run (which ends July 28). The crowd was shell-shocked, too, or perhaps stunned is a better description. Only a few stood though a thunderous ovation had been earned.  Such was the nature of the evening.  

It’s tempting to think of the play—which conjures the furies of the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany and their deadly effect on a Krupp-like steel and armaments dynasty—as a metaphor for current events in America, and clearly many in the audience did. So, too, Rebecca Robertson, the Armory’s president and executive producer, and Pierre Audi, its artistic director, who write in their welcome letter in the show’s program that “it is sobering how relevant [its] themes [of intrigue and ambition…betrayal and murder in the insidious struggle for power] are today.” But such a literal reading diminishes the impact of this reimagined spectacle of confinement to perdition.

Certainly, the new The Damned is not theatrical escapism, but it wields extraordinary, transporting power, and despite its violence, both physical and psychological (and the need to read supertitles, as it is performed in French), it’s so riveting and involving, and so immaculately performed and staged, that it whizzes by in a relentless, two-hour and ten-minute (no intermission) rush that will leave many perversely uplifted by the moral clarity of its focused vision. For it demonstrates that even for a wealthy and powerful industrial clan like the central Essenbecks, karma is, as the apt cliche has it, a bitch. 

The armory’s cavernous Wade Thompson Drill Hall is a perfect venue for this extravagant production, with its portentous echoing acoustics, that make Eric Sleichim’s sound design, which includes passages of Krautrock, infernal noises reminiscent of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music and sound effects that convey the menace of the world at first just outside and then, at the center of the action, even more affecting.  There is also ample room not only for a seated audience but for onstage makeup tables and racks of costumes, chairs for performers and crew when they are not onstage, Donghia-style platforms for when they are in Purgatory on the periphery, and a giant video screen on which scenographer Jan Versweyveld projects archival footage (beginning with the 1933 Reichstag fire in Berlin that sets off the action—and not coincidentally marked the moment when Adolph Hitler became unstoppable) and roving cameras capture quotidian moments in the fraught life of the Essenbecks as well as intense close-ups of the actors and actresses, brief offstage movements (including Wednesday evening’s sole laugh, when one character in search of another burst out the Armory’s doors onto Park Avenue, causing an unaware dog walker to blanch), and even passing shots of the audience, implying their complicity with the events onstage.

The cast is uniformly remarkable, conveying the corrosive effects of most of the deadly sins even to those who don’t understand French. Their emotions are recognizable, even without a glance at the translations.  Among them are the family’s patriarch Baron Joachim von Essenbeck, played to resigned perfection by Didier Sandre; his daughter-in-law, the widowed Sophie, portrayed by Elsa Lepoivre, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the imperiously chic Princess Michael of Kent; Sophie’s lover, Friedrich Bruckman (Guillame Galliene, who nearly makes one forget the unforgettable Dirk Bogarde in Visconti’s original), and Christophe Montanez, who plays the role of Sophie’s twisted son Martin, originated by Helmut Berger. This Martin is more menacing Alice Cooper than beautiful-but-mincing David Bowie—and that’s meant as a compliment. 

The Damned in its latest incarnation is more grand guignol than glam rock, and thus a perfect reflection of these times. Nasty, unpleasant, discomfiting, revealing, and filled with meaning both about the past and the present, it’s an unforgettable look into the heart of a darkness the world has not learned to avoid.


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