Energetic cast fails to redeem wordy, wearying Buchner play
New York — Danton's Death', Play by Georg Buchner, translated by Hedwig Rappolt. Presented by La Mama ETC and Time and Space Limited. There seems to be a Georg Buchner revival. a couple of years ago, Werner Herzog filmed his stark "Woyzeck." Now the adventurous La Mama company has lavishly mounted "Danton's Death," and the CSC Repertory plans a double bill of "Woyzeck" and "Leone and Lena" for later this season. And there you have it -- the entire dramatic output of this stormy writer, who died in 1837 at age 23.
The French Revolution may be having a revival, too -- given the enormous interest in Abel Gance's 1927 film "Napoleon," which is preparing for an American tour in its reconstructed version. "Danton's Death" is a disturbing plunge into the very center of that troubled period. Buchner wants to shake his spectators to their bones, questioning every accepted notion of social order and revolutionary activity.
As a dramatist, he tried to explore history in a flamboyant new way. Yet he also seemed to enjoy the shaking- up process for its own sake. Perhaps as a result, "Danton's Death" wasn't staged until 67 years after it was written. Buchner attempted to mirror events, not just present or explicate them, and he hated to soften things. In a letter to his family, quoted by a La Mama program note, he wrote that a book "must be neither more moralm nor more immoralm than history itself; but history has not been created . . . as reading matter for young ladies. . . ."
Danton's death is a torrent of words, many quoted directly from Danton, Robespierre, and others. The metaphors are often sexual, even when the subject is war, peace, virtue, or terrorism. As directed by Linda Mussman, the La Mama production supports these cascades of language with a carefully stylized visual scheme -- a tableau to match every aphorism in the script, and more studied poses than a wedding album.
To be sure, there are some striking juxtapositions of word and image, accomplished by a gifted and energetic cast. But it goes on for something like three hours (plus intermissions), and I found the experience wearying, right up to the unexpectedly elegant ending. "Danton's Death" doesn't speak to you, it bombards you. By the finale I was mighty grateful for Dan Erkkila's music, which was bright, engaging, and inventive every step of the way. Without its soothing influence, this would be a difficult evening indeed, for all its th udding intellectual force and verbal- visual complexity.