Valiant effort to energize Camus
By Nelson Pressley
Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012
In WSC Avant Bard's bright, fast production of Albert Camus's "Les Justes (The Just Ones)," the characters gather and debate on a tight, elevated white platform, with the audience in Arlington's intimate Artisphere surrounding the stage. David C. Ghatan's set and lights display the drama as gleamingly as the Hope Diamond.
It's a precious setting for the blood-and-guts terrorist philosophizing of Camus's 1949 play, which follows a band of conspirators as they carry out a political assassination. But then, what can you do with Camus? The script, translated and adapted by local actor-director-writer Rahaleh Nassri, is full of idealistic speeches that quickly blow cold on the stage. Terror, Justice and Love are discussed like classroom abstractions, amounting to a 90-minute parade of principles that rapidly begs to be roughed up.
As it is, director Jay Hardee speeds it up. The actors hit the small stage with maximum adrenaline, biting off sentences and firing speeches with breathless energy. As Yanek, the "poetic" rebel tasked with bombing a tyrant, James T. Majewski's every movement is an explosion. Nora Achrati is equally wired as Dora, the woman of the group. At one point Dora speaks of the ecstasy of their deadly mission, and Achrati is right in tune with her fervent performance.
Soon, though, the sheer physical energy feels like a stab at pumping up the lofty manner of the play, which is more interested in articulating ideas than in dramatizing them. ("Psychology, ingenious plot devices, and spicy situations," Camus wrote in defense of his high Greek style, "though they may amuse me as a member of the audience, leave me indifferent as an author.") Only John Stange's Stepan, the figure who argues that even children should not be spared in the pure and necessarily violent crusade for revolutionary change, conveys an urgency that's truly persuasive.
The rest is increasingly remote as Camus contemplates ethics, action and even the perils of abstraction, as Dora and Yanek address love for the masses vs. love for just the two of them. We the People are addressed directly from time to time as characters circle the platform, but we aren't implicated or much involved; manner has overwhelmed matter.
Nassri takes few liberties in her adaptation, and the crisp, arid black-and-white design (right down to the mostly formal costumes by Jen Bevan) keeps the show on an intellectualized plane apart from the 1905 Russia of Camus's plot, the post-war Europe when he wrote, or our own fraught era. WSC Avant Bard - the Washington Shakespeare Company until a name change this season - has always been willing to have a go with daunting titles and European intellectuals, so the choice of "Les Justes" crackles with possibility. The acting takes a zealous attack, but the ironclad play is never weaponized.