Poor, crazy Antonin Artaud, creator of the Theater of Cruelty, remains misunderstood everywhere. By “cruelty,” he meant that he wanted to rip theater from the jaws of literature, to slash away at the line between watching a play and being alive, and to leave audiences shaken and disturbed. Instead, companies attracted to his bad-boy image—like Hotel Savant, who are mounting his notable 1935 failure, The Cenci—treat Artaud like he’s Louis Vuitton just because he was French. They hire a glamorous crew of professional actors with toned bodies and adorn Artaud’s angst-ridden, blasphemous, Sade-like tale of a twisted patriarch bent on murder and pedophilia with the gorgeous black-and-white costumes of Ramona Ponce. Director John Jahnke, a one-time disciple of Reza Abdoh, moves these beautiful people around a stylish set—which recalls both a maze and a courtroom—with military precision and mostly blank delivery.
As the eponymous Italian profligate, Anthony Torn stands out against the supermodels, but his Cenci is more knowingly comic than threatening or creepy. He and his fellow actors all seem the victims of an underdeveloped sensibility that wants to take risks without offending anyone and, horrifyingly, settles for exactly the kind of choices that Artaud despised: indicating action instead of making it real; stylizing sexual violence to make it palatable; turning debauchery into something familiar and ultimately rather dull. Perhaps Jahnke means to one-up Artaud by unleashing cruelty on his legacy. At any rate, The Cenci makes a perfect macabre coda to all the similarly chic productions that took place in Bryant Park during Fashion Week.