DANTON'S DEATH Drama by Georg Buchner. Production conceived and directed by Robert Wilson. New English text by Robert Auletta. At the Alley Theatre through Nov. 15.
THE new production of "Danton's Death" is 100 percent Robert Wilson, which makes it stand out against earlier dismal American productions of the 1835 play about the last days of the French Revolution. Those productions ranged from murky and remote to overblown. But in this version, designed and directed by a Texas-born arts revolutionary who has won his fame essentially in Europe, it has achieved a fine, penetrating realization 157 years after it was written.
In a time when revolution and terror are not strangers, "Santo Death" in this compacted, modernized version has new pertinence. The play was a masterpiece in its time, a forerunner of existentialism and the modern theater. And as Mr. Wilson has conceived it, the play has fresh life as a great work made visually arresting and dramatically fascinating. With this, his fifth production in Houston, the Waco native is making a socko impact in his home state, and this production should naturally wend its way on to the international scene.
From its mystical opening scene with a torchlight burning in a black, cell-like space, and a tall, gagged mystery man strolling at a snail's pace up and down the stage, this "Danton's Death" is at issue with commercial showhouse expectations every minute of its 2 1/2 hours.
Most significant here is that Wilson tackled a heavy classical script, its subject more visceral and combative than the allegorical "When We Dead Awaken" that Wilson directed in a joint Alley and American Repertory Theater production in 1991. Opposing the cliches of naturalistic theater, Wilson brought his concepts to "Danton's Death," a play that has its own realistic, narrative demands. This was not the easiest chasm to bridge.
Wilson's approach has images not unlike those for his earlier productions of "Civil Wars," or the connective short "Knee Plays." He mixes vigorous verbal staged scenes with flawlessly timed opening panels at the rear of the stage - much as a camera lens opens and shuts - to create surrealist images, silhouettes, and unexpected landscapes. And the lighting dynamics are as scrupulously devised as the musical scores and the soundtrack, which stand in at moments for characters. Gusting wind sounds, for insta nce, represent the French street mobs in one scene. Other times the sounds are like flames crackling.
An outstanding cast learned to move in the stylized, slightly hypnotic Robert Wilson manner suggesting an elegant, slow-motion choreography. Sometimes the actors convey the humanity and individuality of their characters through cricks and tics as they speak, and their hand gestures are often odd or unlikely, but not uninteresting.
Richard Thomas as Danton, and Lou Liberatore, playing Robespierre, engage one another as vivid counterforces in the fierce political stew that simmered as the revolution was winding down. New social abuses are now being perpetrated not by the vanished aristocrats, but by the nobodies, newly fattened hedonists taking their places. In the atmosphere of hatred and conspiracy, the growing stand-off between these two flawed heroes of the revolution drives Buchner's play.
Mr. Thomas is a splendid central figure, whether stroking prostitutes as the libertine who opposes Robespierre's virginal piety or standing at the tribunal in defense of himself. Mr. Liberatore, bathing in his tub, reminiscent of Marat, creates an indelible image, a compact figure, plotting with his dandyish lieutenant St. Just to rid the world of Danton, a man now inconvenient to the "virtue" of the movement.
Danton's short transition from treasured icon of the revolution to a man bound for the guillotine is the main track of the play. And it offers Thomas a rich opportunity for action, sexual adventure, grand oratory, a lengthy contemplation of life and the hereafter, plus a last-minute rush to defend his life. Eventually there is the march with his Dantonites to a closet-like scaffold where each victim steps on a treadle and disappears from view.
If the production had any shortcoming, it would be that the color, scope, and formalism of it - its very assets - worked against much emotional impact. The 29 members of the Alley company fused smoothly as an ensemble, but some with special assignments stood out. Gregory Boyd, the Alley's artistic director was excellent in the cameo role of the philosophical Thomas Paine; amber-voiced Annalee Jefferies as a fatal seductress, appeared appropriately in a winding sheet, when she wasn't lying on a Wilson-des igned white marble chaise.
The perfection seen in Wilson's staging of "Danton's Death" was achieved in a preparation and rehearsal period of more than 10 months. Unusual in resident theater was the split rehearsal, which called for a June walk-through so the actors could learn the movement, and then regular rehearsals began two months later. The Alley, where Wilson is an artistic associate, spent an extra $75,000 to clear the stage of an existing production and reinstall it 12 hours later. It was time and funds well spent in the c ause of a clockwork realization of an important classic.