However you may feel about "The Count of Monte Cristo," the second production of the Kennedy Center's American National Theater, you cannot accuse it of the sins of the first, a "Henry IV, Part I" so half-hearted it inspired only indifference.
For his directorial debut at the Center, Peter Sellars has thrown his imagination into high gear and forged full speed ahead -- with brilliant, reckless originality. The Eisenhower Theater seems too small by half to contain the foment of ideas and images. This "Count of Monte Cristo," which opened Saturday night, assaults the roof, hurtles against the side walls, burrows into the stage floor and all but batters down the back door in its attempt to create a world of soaring passions and subterranean intrigues.
Audacity is written all over the production, starting with the notion of reviving the play in the first place. Few would consider it one of the finer achievements of the 19th century. It is filled with those grandiloquent sentiments of characters, always on the edge of one emotional precipice or another. The plot, which sprawls over 23 years and a goodly portion of Europe, has more entanglements than grandmother's knitting basket. If "Monte Cristo" has been remembered up to now, it is as the melodrama that made a matinee idol -- then a prisoner -- out of James O'Neill (the father of playwright Eugene). Having hacked this version from Alexander Dumas' original script, O'Neill doggedly performed the title role for 30 years.
Sellars refuses to be bound by the narrow view. In what he calls "the headlong over-the-top madness" of melodrama, he sees "the birth of modernism." And in the play's conventions -- the asides to the audience, the blithe leaps across time and space, the florid confessions that well up from souls both evil and pure -- he perceives the seeds of today's cinema. This is to be no loving recreation of a patch of bygone theatrical history. Instead, it is Sellars confronting an outdated piece of romantic claptrap and then teasing, caressing, coaxing, bullying it right into the 20th century.
I have no doubts that for some -- the traditionalists and the literal-minded, chief among them -- Sellars' inventions will prove infuriating. While the cast -- headed by such sterling talents as Richard Thomas, Roscoe Lee Browne, David Warrilow -- are garbed in costumes befitting their station in late 19th-century French society, their faces are sometimes painted with the colored geometric designs of constructivist canvases. Set designer George Tsypin not only refuses to hide all the backstage paraphernalia of the Eisenhower, but willfully exposes the machinery, lowers the catwalks into view and rolls on huge towers of blazing lights. At one point, the actors even use the elevator in the back wall to ascend to the dizzying heights of the infamous Chateau d'If, even as portions of the floor are dropping away to suggest its somber dungeons.
Tucked off to one side, a string quartet underscores the action with bursts of Beethoven, and then, in the second half (of a 3 3/4-hour evening) gets four minutes all to itself to play a musical interlude by the contemporary German composer Alfred Schnittke that suggests the protestations of mad bumblebees. The actors are not eschewing the exaggerated stances of 19th-century melodrama. As if to emphasize them, lighting designer James F. Ingalls is forever isolating them in puddles and pools of light that are switched off almost as soon as they're switched on. The last act, however, a predawn duel, takes place in near obscurity. You will see only amorphous forms, from which emanate spectral voices reverberating over the electronic sound system.
Nothing that has heretofore played in the Eisenhower will prepare you for Sellars' huge, idiosyncratic vision. And yet for all his daring, it strikes me that he is first and foremost a storyteller. What appears on the surface outlandishly avant-garde is merely evidence of Sellars' irrepressible desire to spin a tale -- spin it this way, and then spin it that. To approach "The Count of Monte Cristo" in a state of cautious intellectualism is to miss its playful fervor, its giddy belief in perfidy, its circus-like appeal to the child in all of us.
When it goes askew, it is not because Thomas, for example, suddenly turns up with a face painted deep red. (Red is, after all, the color of revenge -- and at that particular moment, the actor is single-mindedly bent on punishing the villains who exiled him to the bowels of the Chateau d'If.) At times, Sellars simply forgets that the plot, silly as it is, does go through some rather tricky loop-the-loops. He wants to get on with the excitement when we want an update on the fateful circumstances that have landed the characters in a particular pot of jam. In his desire to multiply the coups de theatre, Sellars occasionally garbles the very narrative that is making them possible.
In its simplest outlines, "Monte Cristo" is the chronicle of Edmund Dantes (Thomas), who is unjustly implicated in a scheme to overthrow the monarch, and on the day of his marriage to the fair Mercedes (Patti LuPone), is arrested and pitched into the dungeon. There by scratching through the walls, he meets Abbe Faria (Warrilow), a seeming lunatic, who will in fact school him in the ways of forbearance and escape. Eighteen years later, the jailers will heave a sack containing the Abbe's dead body into the ocean. But it is really Dantes, alive and snorting fire, who is inside. Disguised as the Count of Monte Cristo, he will set about engineering the downfall of the dastards who robbed him of his youth, his wife and, as it turns out (what doesn't turn out in melodrama?), the son she has borne him in secret.
The gusto of the tale has inspired some breathtaking effects. Seated behind a gleaming desk, the perfidious Villefort (South African actor Zakes Mokae in a provocative bit of counter-casting) plots Dantes' arrest, then Sellars sends the actor and desk whirling off into space, like a meteor into the blackness. He boldly perches Dantes' jailers on a mesh grid which, if it were elevated any higher, would disappear from sight. At the same time, he allows only the brightly lit heads of Dantes and Abbe Faria to protrude from the stage floor. The moment seems to be wrenched from Samuel Beckett's "Play," especially when an immobile Thomas delivers the haunting "Dark," a riveting poem of cosmic devastation on loan from Lord Byron.
Gliding silently about the stage are what appear to be huge diabolical armoires, lacquered black. Objects of intrigue in themselves, they function as a ship plowing into harbor, the halls of injustice and, when their mirrored insides are revealed, the treacherous salons of wealth and privilege. Like much in this production, they speak to the subconcious, the once-upon-a-nightime fears inherent in all good adventure stories.
If Sellars is drawn to 19th-century melodrama, it not merely for its abundant theatricality and its outsized passions, however. He is fascinated by its moral extremes, and this production seems obsessed with the notion of redemption. "The Count of Monte Cristo" is about the gulfs that fate and human perversity carve between two generations of fathers and sons. But Sellars also sees in it a larger gulf -- that which separates the Father and his creatures.
The acting is as full-bodied as it was timorous in "Henry IV, Part I." Initially, Thomas seems to be trading on his innate decency as Dantes. Then in a deft about-face, he holds decency up to the light and exposes all of its stains and imperfections. Warrilow, vibrating between zeal and madness, possesses the intensity of a Biblical hermit, while Browne, his voice as svelte as his presence is elegant, cuts arresting figure eights as an adventurer of many identities. In the large cast, in fact, only Tony Azito struck me as wildly misplaced. Going beyond his usual comic puppet-on-a-string number as the evil Danglars, Azito appears to have contracted St. Vitus' dance.
For all this, I cannot pretend that "The Count of Monte Cristo" will turn the Kennedy Center's usual constituency into overnight supporters of ANT. Conventions and theater-going habits die hard and Sellars rarely cedes an inch to convention. But even those who rebel against this radical production will have to concede that he has given them something defiantly original to rebel against. Fence-sitting is not one of the evening's options.