Regional Reviews: San Francisco
Dazzling Ensemble in
The Shotgun Players, one of San Francisco Bay's best cutting-edge theatre groups, is currently presenting Albert Camus' philosophical drama The Just at their new permanent home, The Ashby Stage, in Berkeley. The political drama runs through April 10th. The cast members give stunning performances in this play based on the factual assassination of the Grand Duke Sergei of Russia in 1905. A group of terrorists, part of the Revolutionary Socialist Party which later became part of the Communist party, organized a successful attempt to assassinate the uncle of the Tsar. The Just is about the attempt, as well as the unusual circumstances leading up to and those following the deed.
Albert Camus, one of the greatest existentialist thinkers and writers of the 20th century, said of his play when it premiered at Comedie de L'Est in Paris, "this form of the play should not mislead the reader. I tried to obtain a dramatic tension by classical methods, that is, the confrontation of characters whose strength and judgment were on par. But it would be wrong to conclude that everything balances out and that, in respect to issues posed here, I recommend inaction." Tom Hoover's new translation gives dramatic impetus to the play and he manages to convey Camus' philosophy in this excellent production. The confrontation scenes between the characters about the meaning of life, the limits of any actions such as assassination or killing, the justification of terrorism and the acceptance of death as a consequence when one oversteps them are superb.
The Just is rarely revived since it includes a great deal of political and philosophical discussion that is more like reading a Camus novel . However, this new translation makes the characters come to life with luminous dialogue and outstanding acting. The translator has centered much of the core of the play around the tragic love affair of Dora and Yanek, much like that of Romeo and Juliet (especially in Romeo and Juliet's act five, scene five when Juliet says "O love, O life, Not life but love in death").
The Just opens in a small apartment overlooking a street where the Grand Duke will pass on his way to the theatre. Five persons, led by scholar Boris Annenkov (Cassidy Brown), are plotting to bomb the carriage. The conspirators argue the process, intention, targets and raison d'être with a deep-seated fanaticism. The group includes a microcosm of a Socialist cell, with Stepan (John Nahigian), who returns from exile in Switzerland as the angry and most merciless member of the group; Alexis (Ryan O'Donnell), who is a fervent but somewhat worried conspirator; Dora Doulabov (Beth Donohue), the fierce female member full of great ideals of love and death; and "The Poet" Yanek (Taylor Valentine), a young romantic egocentric who is full of "joie de vivre" but willing to give his life for the cause - Yanek is person who will be throwing the bomb.
The first bombing attempt is suddenly called off because Yanek sees that the Grand Duke has his wife and children in the carriage. He does not want to kill children for the cause, and this results in a violent confrontation between Yanek and Stepen. Stepen is violently angry with the young man and says, "What's two children when thousands of children are dying from hunger?" One month later, Yanek tries again and succeeds, and he is captured by the police.
The second act takes place in jail where Yanek has long conversations regarding the nature of the killing with the executioner (Eric Burns) and the chief of police (John Thomas) and receives an unwelcome visit from the Grand Duchess (Michele Beauvoir-Shoshani) who wants him to repent for his sins by praying with her, telling him that he will get a reprieve for his deed.
Beth Donohue (Dog Act, Three Sisters and As You Like It at Shotgun) gives a penetrating performance as the fierce bomb maker. You can see the frantic search for love and death in her character. She communicates the sense of anguish and bleakness of the group. Taylor Valentine (Quills) is equally exciting in his role as the young, full-of-life Yanek. He changes from an exuberant character in the first act to more introspective in the second act.
John Nahigian (Othello and Taming of the Shrew at Marin Shakespeare) gives a bombastic performance as the angry Stepan while Ryan O'Donnell (just return from Chicago where he obtained his MFA at DePaul) as Alexis is deeply poignant in the last scenes of the first act. John Thomas (Troilus & Cressida and Mother Earth) as the chief of police gives a polished performance with a superb theatrical voice, while Eric Burns (Dog Act and Straight Laced) plays the executioner with droll humor. Michele Beauvoir-Shoshani is elegant as the Grand Duchess in her one scene in the second act while Cassidy Brown gives an avid performance as the intelligent, highly educated Boris.
Patrick Dooley has finely tuned all of the performances, and the changes of scene run smoothly. Alf Pollard and Carol Chow have designed an excellent Russian drawing room set of the early 20th century, and for the second act transformed the stage into a dank and dirty cell of a prison with gray dirt-stained wall panels in the background. Jared Hirsch has given the proper mood of the play with his extraordinary lighting. Christine Crook's costumes are excellent period apparel.
Albert Camus' The Just plays through April 10th at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley. For tickets call 510-841-6500 or go to www.shotgunplayers.org. Coming up next is Roland Schimmelpfennig's Arabian Night; this is the United States premiere with translation by David Tushingham, opening on May 31st.