NYC Avante-Gardists Take On French Theater History

Bonjour Artaud!

When it premiered in Paris in 1935, The Cencibecame one of the most notorious flops in theater history. The poetic play—evoking the murderous corruption of Renaissance Rome—was written and directed by ex-surrealist Antonin Artaud, who dreamed of a so-called "Theater of Cruelty" that would assault the audience's senses and steer them away from literary drama. He desperately wanted The Cenci to realize his ideals. Instead, the show became a Paris art-world joke. (Artaud, frustrated, eventually landed in an asylum.)

So why, in 2008 New York City, would a young director like John Jahnke choose to stage an avant-garde disaster from history's dustbin? Is he cultivating obscurity? "I actually really like this text," says Jahnke, sitting in a Soho rehearsal room. "There are so many fragments and so many loopholes in the script that I find fascinating."

When Jahnke's company, Hotel Savant, debuts its revival on February 6 at the Ohio Theatre, the director reckons it will help right this wrong of theater history. Jahnke says he loves finding solutions—through sound, images, and choreography—to Artaud's sometimes-impossible stage directions, like the one calling for the heroine Beatrice to hang by her hair from a spinning wheel. (The original 1935 actress, feuding with her enraged director, refused to follow the script. "She was convinced that he would kick the practice stool from underneath her" and let her hang, says Jahnke.) Still, the director insists, there's a lot to embrace in the script. "It really is a very tawdry tale," he notes. "It's tabloid fodder: Father rapes daughter. Daughter gets family and ex-boyfriend together to kill father. Vatican puts family to death, takes family fortune."

So where did Artaud go wrong? "By not sticking to his guns and doing it the way he wanted," says Jahnke with a laugh. Jahnke has thought about tackling the text for about 10 years, but he stepped up his efforts in 2006, flying to Paris to lobby a publisher for performance rights, then commissioning a new American translation from Richard Sieburth of NYU's French Institute. Last summer, he developed his staging at Robert Wilson's Watermill Center on Long Island. It's too soon to know what Hotel Savant's production will look like, but Jahnke has a reputation for visual inventiveness; through imagery and movement, he may finally succeed in reaching The Cenci's elusive core.

While Jahnke reawakens modernist dreams, some downtown dreamers known as the National Theatre of the United States of America have decided to plunder the more distant past. Eager to take on a classic for the first time, the feisty troupe has picked Molière's Don Juan(starting February 6 at the Chocolate Factory). The groups's zealous announcement boasts of "a production so authentic that it rivals in authenticity Molière's own 1665 production at the Palais-Royal in Paris."

But take that claim with a silo of salt. Yehuda Duenyas, who plays Don Juan, points out that the freewheeling ensemble has always stood "against verisimilitude." He says they create their own authenticity in the name of effective comedy. James Stanley, who helped prepare the translation, adds: "This idea of an 'authentic' production, a historical recreation—we're trying to call that into question a little bit. But we're also trying to embody the ethos of Molière, whose plays were aggressive and critical and fast-paced."

NTUSA plans to suggest a "sensuous" 17th-century Spanish landscape with cardboard backdrops, soundscapes, and unusual homemade props such as a giant phallus made out of water bottles. According to Jonathan Jacobs, a founding company member, "There's sort of an invented nostalgia. It's going to be lush, Technicolor, like Maxfield Parrish paintings, but with these Molière actors right in front of you in this pit of sorts."

With rehearsals encouraging democratic company participation, NTUSA—founded in 2000—could also be replicating the creative dynamic of Molière's 17th-century troupe. Both new shows reflect the artists' whatever-it- takes approaches, blending original and imagined elements. Above all, these downtown revivalists are staying practical, focusing on the spirit more than the letter of history's thorny scripts.

 
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