In an Ivo Van Hove production, the theatrical experience can at times attain an intensity so severe as to approximate an assault on the senses. His plays are so totalizing, the performances so raw, that to witness one is to be primally pinned to your seat for two hours while feeling flayed alive. And so at the end of The Damned, his latest work (at Park Avenue Armory), when a naked man covered in the residue of mass murder picks up a howitzer and aims it straight at the audience, the crack of the rifle echoing through the hall, one could be forgiven for wondering if Van Hove didn’t leave at least one round in the chamber, just to really bring his point home. This is, to put it bluntly, a holy-shit of a production if I’ve ever seen one.
That the show crackles with so much life is all the more surprising considering its immense source material. Luchino Visconti’s 1969 cinematic version is one of those films that everyone says is a classic but no one seems to like much. (Well, some people like it.) A portentous and heavily symbolic two and a half hours of claustrophobia, Visconti’s The Damned was described by Roger Ebert as “one of the most impenetrable films ever made”; the late critic also compared it to “a magician who very slowly lifts his handkerchief from a crystal bowl, maintaining our suspense until the very end, when we see that the bowl is empty.” The story, to the extent it can be discerned, regards the Essenbeck family, ultra-wealthy owners of a steel and munitions empire who must navigate the rise of the Nazis in early-1933 Germany. In this tale of a corrupt clan, the murderous ambition of the Macbeths meets the moral conundrum of Antigone meets the Oedipal complex of Hamlet meets the decadence of Caligula. Visconti’s project was originally nearly four hours; he eventually trimmed ninety minutes to make it (slightly) more palatable to viewers.
Somehow Van Hove cracks the material open, running a tight narrative spine through it while losing nothing of the essence. And I mean really nothing — even the parts one imagines as a product of the debauched era, unfit for our modern sensibilities. A central plot thread involves the sexual depravity of the heir to the Essenbeck empire, Martin, played here with appropriate derangement by Christophe Montenez. One would expect — and certainly wish — that Van Hove would glance over, or at least cut substantially, the scenes where Martin molests young girls, but he doesn’t. It’s not quite the close-up perspective of the cinematic version; instead, we hear a young girl’s voice as she counts to a hundred in the pair’s game of hide-and-seek. The count is painfully slow. Van Hove forces you to watch, and listen.
The film takes place largely in the Essenbeck castle and the offices of the business, so it is easy to envision how the closed-door interactions would translate to a proscenium theater. It is equally easy to picture how a lesser director would muck up the enterprise within the cavernous depths of the Park Avenue Armory’s 55,000-square-foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall. Van Hove puts all the members of the 330-year-old Comédie-Française, the Parisian theater troupe that performs The Damned, on display: The actors dress onstage, they die onstage; even when they are offstage, they are onstage, sitting off to the side like some lucky audience members who scored extra-good seats. Van Hove also deploys a roving cameraperson whose live footage projects the central action of the moment onto an oversized screen hanging from the rafters. This technique doesn’t merely center the audience’s attention; it allows The Damned to extend outward, onto Park Avenue at one moment (at my showing, the camera caught a cast-member surprising a woman walking her dog), or inward, onto the faces of the family members as their demise closes in on them and they finally wake up to what they have done and the oblivion to come. The play is, in fact, almost as cinematic as its predecessor, the screen a canvas upon which Van Hove paints and a second stage in dialogue with the one below it.
The Damned couldn’t be more timely. It is ultimately a story of how ambitious and privileged people comport themselves to the new realities of power; how evil comes tiptoeing in upon those who would prefer to not pay attention; and how brutality begins, and can thus only end, in the home. (There are even references to dark-money campaign finance and the deplorables!) But the action comes rushing forth at too fast a clip for The Damned to ever feel bogged-down didactic. The show is a shade under two and a half hours, without an intermission; the only pause comes periodically, when nearly all of the Comédie-Française takes the stage under bright lights to stare out at the crowd. The camera at these junctures turns to the seats, so the audience is projected onto the screen above. The actors peer out at us for an uncomfortably extended time. For a long, long moment, the roles between actor and audience are reversed, and it is hard for us not to wonder if, while watching these gross abuses of power, we have been wrong to consider ourselves mere spectators the whole time.