Peter Sellars's debut at the Kennedy Center: an audacious ``Count of Monte Cristo' The Count of Monte Cristo Adapted from play by Alexandre Dumas. Directed by Peter Sellars.

Watching director Peter Sellars's version of ``The Count of Monte Cristo'' is like hurtling over Niagara Falls in an elegant barrel. Full of thrills and spills and foam, it ends -- after a dark, closed, and perilous journey -- on a safe shore. But that's nearly four hours later. Meanwhile Sellars takes us on a terrific ride, a pell-mell race through melodrama drenched in laughter, hisses, boos, and tears. From the first glimpse of the Eisenhower Theater's stage -- huge, darkened, seething with intrigue -- it is clear that Peter Sellars is twirling his mustachios with glee.

For his Kennedy Center directing debut, Sellars has transformed the 19th-century play, which actor James O'Neill (father of playwright Eugene O'Neill) ``revised and immortalized'' from Alexandre Dumas's dramatization of his own 1,500-page novel. Dumas's dramatization took two nights and was so wildly melodramatic that it caused riots in Paris and London; O'Neill's dramatization reaped him a 30-year run in his hit role. Sellars's contemporary version audaciously mingles the drama with passages from the Bible, Lord Byron, Beethoven's ``Serioso'' string quartet, and Alfred Schnittke's string quartet No. 2. The script was restored and assembled by Davies King, in this second production of the American National Theater, whose director is Peter Sellars.

From the moment the curtain goes up, it's obvious that Sellars is one of the most innovative and daring directors in the theater today. He exposes the entire stage -- catwalks, ceiling, back wall, lights, ropes -- and leaves much of it mysteriously black, creating a great cavern in which the melodrama reverberates and eventually becomes tragedy. But as an enticement, he lures the audience in Act I with what seems to be a hiss-the-villain, laughing spoof as the plot first tumbles out. Edmund Dantes (Richard Thomas), an innocent Candide among sailors, is about to dock and marry his beloved Mercedes (Patti LuPone). But first, as a result of his promise to his dying captain, he must deliver a letter from the exiled Napoleon. That letter results in his unjust imprisonment in a dungeon for 18 years, changing the course of his life until he emerges finally (Act IV) as the Count of Monte Cristo to punish the wicked and right all wrongs.

It is a thriller, but a complex, knotted one that rips by at jet speed. Unfortunately at times it leaves the audience bewildered by the pace of the dialogue (too fast) and the plot spinning wildly on a murky stage. But it is never dull.

A string quartet sits at back on stage right, playing the Beethoven ``Serioso'' quartet as though their lives depended on it; this music gives an electrifying pace and heart to the melodrama, like the live piano accompanying silent movies.

Sellars knows how to surprise, to rivet the attention: The villainous flunkies skitter on stage wearing chartreuse makeup and looking like refugees from a Toulouse Lautrec painting. George Tsypin's wonderful sets are massive, ominous: black staircases that reach to the ceiling, entrances and exits made from dark-mirrored, wheeling armoires that resemble giant, squashed cellos.

The play has an eerie, dreamlike quality, particularly in the most memorable scene, a vast Parisian drawing room filled with dark marble and black glass pedestals topped with Napoleonic eagles. The cast's faces are painted blue, yellow, green, red, to match their splendid costumes by Kurt Wilhelm. When the Count of Monte Cristo finally appears, he wears a scarlet toga over black tie and tails and a scarlet-painted face.

If I've left the actors till late in the review, it's because to some degree they are upstaged by the very drama of the production itself. Richard Thomas begins gracefully as an ebullient Edmund Dantes and does admirably with his prison scenes (although the use of Lord Byron's ``Darkness'' as a prison soliloquy jars). But his Count lacks a needed steely heroism. Patti LuPone is brilliant as Mercedes. Roscoe Lee Browne is silkily sinister as the ambiguous M. Noirtier, Zakes Mokae chilling but occasionally hard to understand as the king's prosecutor, and Joaquim de Almeida handsome but dastardly as Fernand, Dantes's rival.

In all, a banner cast, with some fine lines. The best are those chosen by Sellars from the King James Version of the Bible, like the passage from Ecclesiastes 3:15 which serves as the dramatic structure on which the production rests.

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