REVIEW: Ivo van Hove’s “The Damned"
“The complicity of our people is the greatest miracle of the Third Reich”. Would it were that the same could never be said of any other society. And yet those words piece deep when uttered during “The Damned”, Belgian visionary director Ivo van Hove’s breathtaking and terrifying stage version of Luchino Visconti, Nicola Badalucco, and Enrico Medioli’s 1969 screenplay—performed by the historic Comédie-Française (founded in 1680) at the Park Avenue Armory for a sold out engagement now through July 28th.
The story concerns the fall of the von Essenbecks, a fictional German industrialist family of steel tycoons, at the rise of the Third Reich. Internecine power struggles and domestic political differences among the family’s warring personalities mirror the greater moral disintegration and descent into madness of the larger society around them. Mr. van Hove smartly observed the epic, tragic scale of this intimate story and its resonance for the global moment of upheaval in which it arrives on stage, and produces a visceral performance coursing with violence, sex, and brutality.
In a feat of technical brilliance, two videographers move about the stage throughout the entirety of the piece, producing, in real time, a film that offers closeups and perspectives on the action onstage, affording the audience a near-constant opportunity to view the play from two points of view: director-curated on a giant screen centerstage, and wherever their own eyes choose to look.
A fact of live theatre, as opposed to film, is that the director and designers can only do so much to focus the audience’s eyes, but because of audience free-will, their efforts can never be more than a strong suggestion; here, through employment of precisely tracked and edited live filmmaking, Mr. van Hove manipulates this fact to substitute his own eyes for those of the audience at least fifty percent of the time, becoming directly, actively complicit in the theatremaking between his company and its audience. It is thrilling to observe and to participate (yes, the cameras turn on the audience more than once), even given the grisly substance of the play, and more than once Mr. van Hove even takes his approach a step further by tricking the audience with the content of the video that is projected.
There is almost always more than one place to look. In the vast expanse of the Armory’s Drill Hall, the stage, a raised platform, plays host to a series of rituals from the process of makeup to burial—stage right featuring a row of dressing room vanities, stage left a series of coffins, the center anchored by that giant screen upstage and a large urn downstage that is increasingly filled with the ashes of slain characters (design by Jans Versweyveld). Slowly, the population on stage decreases, until there is only one.
Throughout the powerful, tension-filled performance—delivered in French with English supertitles—striking scenarios and imagery never let up, from goosestepping children to a woman tarred and feathered, naked male horseplay, gun violence, buckets of blood, the dusting of human ashes, pedophilia, incest, rape, murder, and bodies in coffins. It might feel gratuitous at first glance, but every moment serves a purpose, and underlines the ruthless reality and cruelty of Nazi Germany.
As if the title didn’t give it away, there are no heroes or saviors in “The Damned”, only the compromised, the complicit, the villains, and the victims. The outstanding company of the Comédie-Française give remarkable, raw performances of great physicality and intense emotion.
While this run is sold out, check for ticket availability through the Armory or on the second hand market. “The Damned” is one of the most profoundly unsettling, memorable, and perversely satisfying experiences I have had in the theatre. It reminds me that there is no limit to the potential of live theatre and of the fierce urgency of art to counter evil. “Nazism”, it is said, “is our creation.” So must be its destruction.
Bottom Line: Belgian visionary director Ivo van Hove presents a breathtaking and terrifying stage version of Luchino Visconti’s “The Damned” at the Park Avenue Armory. Documenting the rise of the Third Reich through the lens of one German family, it is one of the most profoundly unsettling, memorable, and perversely satisfying experiences I have had in the theatre.
Comédie-Française at the
Park Avenue Armory
643 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10065
Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: July 17, 2018
Final Performance: July 28, 2018