Death in Venice fits snugly into the final slot in the Manhattan Ensemble Theater's season. Faithfully based on Thomas Mann's 1912 novella, it succeeds at nearly everything except creating exciting theatre. Unfortunately, that's one failure too many.
The production is really the American premiere of a show that originated at the Citizens' Theatre in Glasgow. It was adapted by Robert David MacDonald from a translation by David Luke, and whatever the show's other missteps may be, it really is an aural feast. The script, is full of luxurious poetry, cunningly recited and performed by the show's director, Giles Havergal.
Havergal adopts different personas throughout the evening, but is primarily concerned with depicting the story's central figure, Aschenbach. A repressed writer visiting Venice, Aschenbach becomes enamored with a young Polish boy, Tadzio, who represents for him all that is beautiful and pure in the world. This obsession leads him to stay in Venice even as a cholera epidemic claims dozens of victims all around him.
Havergal possesses a richly creative voice, and it's a joy to hear the rich palette of vocal colors he brings to Mann's cautionary tale of the dangers of repression, compliance, and excess. Havergal's skill as a director is also strong, providing interesting staging with the help of Philip Witcomb (sets and costumes) and Zerlina Hughes (lights).
But the pieces never come together. Death in Venice never feels at home on the stage. When Havergal makes his entrance, bearing a set of index cards, it's difficult not to feel that you're in for little more than a lecture in a literature class. Death in Venice is better than that, but not by much. It never finds a way to present onstage what is truly theatrical in the material. Great as the words are, they aren't enough; Havergal, for all his work, does little to make Death in Venice feel more like a play than a dramatic reading of the story itself.
The differences in conventions between literature and theatre require more than is present here. That Venice never seems to come alive for the audience is one problem, but that it never seems to become a real place for Aschenbach is something else indeed. The play never allows Tadzio's effect on Aschenbach to be truly felt, we must accept that - like Aschenbach's frenzied mind, and other elements in the play - at face value.
Without such vital dramatic elements present, Death in Venice feels very little reason for being. It becomes a plodding, almost boring endeavor, too long to sustain itself even at its eighty minute running time. Havergal, for the power and experience he brings to the stage, seems lost, unable to draw the audience into the play's world. On the printed page, Mann's words and ideas may be striking and thought-provoking, but they seem cheap and hollow onstage. When Havergal is taking up stage time coloring a white face with strawberry juice, it's safe to say the optimal theatrical result has not been achieved.
But Havergal is worth it, even if most everything else isn't. He's great to listen to, and the temptation to sit at Death in Venice, close your eyes, and let Havergal's sonorous tones wash over you is great, but one you should resist - you may find yourself falling too easily asleep.
Manhattan Ensemble Theater