Danton's Death

By George Büchner
Adapted by Howard Brenton
Directed by Cara Reichel
Prospect Theater Company
American Theatre of Actors: Chernuchin Theatre
314 W. 54th St. (206-1515; www.smarttix.com)
Non-union production (closes Feb 24)
Review by Frank Episale

A play with the seriousness and scope of Danton's Death presents a significant dilemma for theatrical producers. With over 40 speaking parts and a running time of at least three hours, it is ideally suited to the substantial resources and rehearsal schedules of commercial theatre, but the subject matter and writing style lend themselves more easily to smaller venues and young, adventurous companies. Because of these constraints, the play too often goes unproduced altogether and is in danger of being forgotten outside of academia.

Director Cara Reichel and her Prospect Theater Company should be commended for their courage in taking on George Büchner's daunting epic and congratulated for the degree to which they succeeded in overcoming its many hurdles. Reichel's operatic vision of the play was reflected clearly in the work of her design team. With the aid of composer Peter Mills, she punctuated the action of the play with selections from Brahms's German Requiem, a gamble that paid off beautifully. Dilapidated pillars and seemingly endless swathes of fabric made up the bulk of Katie Oman's evocative set. This spare grandeur was supported by Jiyoun Chang's chiaroscuro lighting and Kiyoko McCrae's period costumes.

The production's most successful moments were the complex street scenes. ATA's cavernous Chernuchin Theatre allowed the ensemble to enter from many directions, over balconies, down staircases, etc. These scenes were precisely choreographed and paced, and were acted with an intensity that viscerally communicated the revolutionary rage of the proletariat. The play itself doesn't let anyone off the hook ideologically; hypocrisy and righteousness coexist in most of the characters. Reichel and her cast seemed well aware of this, and the production was richer for it.

Intimate scenes were more uneven, with the actors sometimes struggling to embody the large-scale emotions of their characters. Simon Feil seemed to struggle with the role of Danton, confusing timidity with nuance and resisting the bigger-than-life ego and charisma of his character. This was especially evident in one-on-one scenes with Ryan Karels (Robespierre) and Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum (Camille) who more successfully embraced the high-stakes conflict and epic melodrama built into the text. The 15 minutes or so leading up to the climactic series of beheadings dragged a bit, failing to build suspense for the finale.

In addition to the actors already mentioned, the impressive cast was made up of nearly 30 performers, many of whom played multiple roles and sang: Kate MacKenzie, Nicole Mitzel, John Gardner, Amy Hutchins, Joshua Decker, Mike Durell, Barbara Zaid, John Harlacher, Lauren Adler, David Steib, Peter Picard, Karla Brunning, William Carl, Jonathan Toth, Paul Young, Scotty Phillips, Jennifer Blood, Julie Lachance, Daniel Carlton, James Kloiber, Erin Romero, Zach Wobensmith, Aaron Walters, Megan Cramer, David Godbey, and Kate Bradner.

Büchner wrote Danton's Death when he was 21, a remarkable achievement for one so young. The play is infused with the energy and restless intelligence of a young revolutionary. Reichel wrote in her Director's Note that this was the most challenging play she's yet worked on; this young director and a mostly young cast were clearly inspired by the obstacles inherent in the text. If this quixotic enthusiasm can be sustained, Prospect Theater Company will likely continue to produce vital, high-stakes theater that deserves to find an audience.

Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 2
Acting: 1
Set: 2
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 2

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Copyright 2002 Frank Episale