Mutilated human corpses pile up in Port-au-Prince, severed body parts strew the roads of Rwanda, blood flows in Bosnia to cleanse Yugoslavia of ethnic impurity. Even on the eve of an invasion, ruthless dictators cling to power in the name of the people, ignoring the will of the electorate. And young American soldiers may once again be asked to pay the ultimate price in the name of democracy.
So what insight could a 21-year-old playwright from more than a century and a half ago bring to our fevered time of carnage? Plenty, if the writer is Georg Buchner and the play is Danton's Death, although the depth and clarity of his message is largely obscured by Peter James Cirino's sprawling production at Planet Earth Multi-Cultural Theatre. Written 46 years after the mother of all excesses, the French Revolution, Danton's Death is an attempt to understand, in the words of the hero, "What is it within us that allows us to lie and murder?" In a view no doubt influenced by the raging hormones of his youth, Buchner sees a blood lust that is as natural to mankind as sexual appetite. Prefiguring Freud, he attributes much of the revolution's excess to the sexual repressions of the fanatical Robespierre and his accomplice, the cold-blooded sadist Saint-Just.
In contrast to these paragons of the religious right of their time, Buchner chooses as his tragic hero Georges-Jacques Danton, a lusty libertine whose ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity spill vividly over into wine, women and, in this production, even an occasional pal. Danton is so obsessed with the pleasures of the senses that he dawdles away his opportunity to set up democratic institutions that would respect and promote the pursuit of happiness, in which he so relentlessly indulges.
Distracted by his throbbing, fleshly desires, Danton permits the ascetic Robespierre to insinuate himself into the mob's conscience as a paragon of virtue and lead it in a crusade to crush the impurities of its revolutionary heroes. Robespierre impugns his enemies' motives by comparing their licentious behavior to that of the corrupt aristocracy they have overthrown. Thus, innocent idealism is destroyed by the perverted manipulation of the sexually deprived. A contemporary parallel might be the likes of a Pat Buchanan, Pat Robertson or William Bennett, politicians who seek to persuade us that their morality protects the virtue of lady liberty from less-pure folk who interpret freedom to mean personal choice in the bedroom. Danton, in Buchner's view, was like a young Jack Kennedy, who publicly inspired our nation to heights of moral idealism while privately screwing his brains out with movie stars. While it may be argued that young Buchner has oversimplified the dynamics of this historic struggle, it can hardly be denied that his complex portrait of that time still stimulates the imagination, and invites an audience to cope with the unanswerable questions that linger through the centuries.
Unfortunately, much of this opportunity for serious inquiry is obscured by Peter James Cirino's sweatily earnest staging, in which Buchner's orgy of blood is too often reduced just to orgy. Cirino's vision of the play is that of a timeless wet dream, feverish with erotic imagery. Everyone in the enormous cast is constantly pawing whomever has the misfortune to be blocked next to them, in a vain attempt to suggest the sexual passions latent in the dramatist's vision.
Such passion is often ignored in productions that give reverence to the time or place of the play, and although Cirino costumes his cast in what can pass for period clothes, the music and the morality are that of the hedonistic present. Actors wallow in their assigned sexual roles, although absolutely no erotic heat is produced. It is all elbows and knees, as G.B. Shaw is said to have described sex itself. The production begins with a brief pantomime suggesting the overthrow of the aristocrats by the peasants, encapsulating the revolution that precedes the play. The director provides a panoply of imagery across the stage that often distracts from the central action of the scene. However, given the inadequacy of many in the cast to fulfill the demands of the scene, we are often grateful for the distraction. Cirino's most striking image is saved for the climax, wherein he suggests the theatrical horror of the guillotine with an imaginative effect that is all the more effective for its simplicity. But Cirino's attempt to engage the audience by direct assault is largely unsuccessful, and did little to persuade us that we were part of the mob.
Planet Earth Multi-Cultural Theatre proclaims a mission of cross-gender casting, and Cirino has fulfilled that goal courageously in this production. The casting of the masculine roles of Camille and Saint-Just with women demonstrates how effortlessly such ideals can be realized, and reveals new, subtle dimensions that more traditional casting might not.
Cirino has wisely used his best actor in the role of Robespierre. Jeffrey Hartgraves commands the stage with eyes that burn like coals, and his intense presence brings focus to all the scenes he is in. He may be too good-looking, in his swirling, black robes lined with crimson and a silver cross dangling from his left earlobe, to convey the wizened sexual gnome that Buchner imagined as Robespierre, but his performance is persuasive, nonetheless. Mollie Cirino is a lean and handsome Saint-Just, although she relishes each nuance of her performance so much that the audience's admiration can hardly compete with her own. Victoria Hunt is a serviceable Camille, managing adroitly to make her lesbian affairs seem believable in the context of this polymorphously perverse production.
Danton is given an earnest reading by Christopher Haines, who has the best voice in the cast and can deliver the poetry with conviction and passion. His dark good looks are appropriate to the part, and are only somewhat undermined by the cherubic innocence of baby fat still evident in his rosy cheeks. But when it comes to conveying the libertine, he has all the sexual heat of the Pillsbury Doughboy.
As for the rest of the cast, the kindest thing is to leave them unmentioned. Only the ubiquitous Skye Ayers is excruciatingly untalented; the rest gamely try to resemble actors, if not characters. They all work hard to fulfill Cirino's vision, constantly tipping back bottles of wine to portray the reckless hedonism of the mob (although I never saw anyone actually swallow). The worst that can be said about this huge group of amateurs is that its enunciation frequently mangles Cirino's translation. Except for some obviously strained phrases (such as Danton's anachronistic declaration "I'm going to push for it"), Cirino's translation is fluid enough, loose and colorful. More adaptation than translation, it emphasizes a world of dreams or fairy tales, both recurring themes in this version.
Cirino has used an eclectic selection of music, from Gershwin's "Summertime" to the Beatles' "Revolution," which ends the two-hour, 35-minute evening. When I came to Phoenix, everyone told me that Planet Earth was the Valley's most adventurous theatre group. This production certainly confirms that reputation. Now if only it can work harder to bring its level of achievement up to the level of its courage. Audience support might help it get the air conditioning and lighting systems its artistic vision so sorely needs.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Phoenix art and theater scene.