The Wade Thompson Drill Hall in New York’s Park Avenue Armory is a vast space that demands epic scale and welcomes drama of nightmarish horror. In the decade or so since it became the city’s premiere venue for theatrical metamorphosis, its offerings have included a mud-spattered Macbeth, a blinding Hairy Ape and, most memorably, a production of Bernd Alois Zimmerman’s bleak vision of hell, Die Soldaten, so outsized that the audience sat on tracks that moved us en masse to different sites of picturesque and aural assault. Each of these shows had redemptive elements while flirting with an inescapable gimmickery, transforming serious art of a human dimension into spectacle of an altogether different bent.
Add to this Ivo Van Hove’s adaptation of Luchino Visconti’s 1969 The Damned, an X-rated film about the period between the burning of the Reichstag in 1933 and the Night of the Long Knives a year later, when German Chancellor Adolf Hitler consolidated his power by eviscerating the competition.
Van Hove, possibly the world’s busiest director of the moment (and in competition with Canada’s Robert Lepage for most divisive among critics and audiences alike), is well suited to this material. His Greekish Broadway staging of Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge drenched actors and some audience members in stage blood, and blood flows in The Damned like the waters of Babylon. This production, commissioned by the Comédie-Française, had its premiere two years ago at the Festival d’Avignon and brings the celebrated Paris troupe back to New York after a decade’s absence.
The Damned is a family affair of the most severely dysfunctional sort. Shot in lurid, refulgent close-up, the film traces the rocky fortunes of a steel and munitions manufacturing family, the Essenbecks (obviously based on the Krupp dynasty, based in Essen, which began selling cannons in 1587). Its vast wealth came from the political expediency that would find its apotheosis in Hitler’s murderous rise to power, which depended to no small extent on the willingness of Essenbeck/Krupp to supply weaponry and the peripheral apparatus of war.
The story of the Essenbecks is not so much one of good versus evil, for there is no good anywhere in evidence. The family squabbles, over lavish repasts delivered on silver service, mostly concerned alignment with Röhm’s SA versus Hitler’s ascendant SS.
“The collective thinking of our people is now complicity,” the Hitler-supporting one says. “Don’t you think that this is the true miracle of the Third Reich?” Now there’s a line that all but screams relevance at the Armory audience.
Along the way to world war, family alliances are formed and betrayed. One interfering young mother and her children are serenely dispatched to Dachau, the first concentration camp. A pre-pubescent girl hangs herself after being raped by her cousin. All of it takes place mostly in a German version of Hearst Castle, or at least its incarnation as Xanadu in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.
Van Hove, with his longtime partner and designer Jan Versweyweld, has, if anything, leeched some of the Eastmancolor out of the proceedings. At the Armory, the audience faces a wide, spare playing area flanked at stage right by exposed dressing areas for the company, and on the left by a row of raised rectangular boxes whose purpose will soon become grotesquely apparent. At center downstage is what appears to be a combination urn and steam engine that will serve as both things, to ear-splitting effect in the case of the latter and searing imagery in the case of the former.
Color or no, and even with substantial elisions and alterations to the screenplay, The Damned is as unsettlingly lurid onstage as it was on film. Van Hove employs most of the tricks in the regietheater handbook. Roving video cameras throw tight shots of debauchery and murder onto a large screen above the action, which also shows archival footage of the Reichstag in flames, book burnings and munitions works in blatant defiance of the Treaty of Versailles.
There is some interaction between the live action and the filmed, much of it violent. (Performed in French, the subtitles are difficult to read while staying tuned to the actors, while some dialogue and songs are untranslated.) At several times during the intermissionless 130 minutes, that camera will be turned on us, just to be certain we get the point.
The technical mastery in evidence is seamless, and the company is astonishing, even if, as in the movie, the dramatis personae can be hard to keep straight. The central performances of Elsa Lepoivre, as the family’s Lady Macbeth, and Christophe Montenez as her morally vacant son, are particularly memorable. The use of the ash-filled urn reminded me, in the most heartbreaking way, of a similar device in Indecent. The final image, which somewhat crudely restates that line about complicity, will surely leave some in the audience rattled to the core, while confirming for others what many critics felt about the Visconti film: that it was Nazi kitsch on a grand scale. I must admit to falling somewhere in the middle.
All this comes as Van Hove and Versweyweld have announced a new production of West Side Story for Broadway in 2019. As an Essenbeck might say, steel yourself.