CROSSING SWORDS OVER 'COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO'

The visitor was given to understand that he would either be swept away by Peter Sellars' staging of "The Count of Monte Cristo" at the Kennedy Center, or that he'd loathe it. No middle ground.

Nonsense. There's always a middle ground. Take Sellars' device of painting the faces of certain characters a vivid color in order to indicate something about them. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't. For instance, we get the signal when two top-hatted gentlemen in green faces (matching their gloves) emerge from the gloom. These would be villains in anybody's theater.

But when the vengeful Dantes (Richard Thomas) comes home to Paris sporting a red face, the impulse is to get out the suntan lotion.

Again, it's effective to station a string quartet on the stage in order to underscore certain scenes with tremolos and musical "stings," in the time-honored fashion of melodrama.

But when Sellars rings down the curtain for four minutes in the middle of the last act while the quartet eviscerates a frenzied piece by one Alfred Schnittke, the story's tension isn't heightened but dissipated. What's taking those stagehands so long back there?

Again, one can (a) applaud Sellars for casting black actors in three big roles that could have gone to white actors without anyone noticing it, and (b) blame Sellars for the fact that only one of the three black actors, Roscoe Lee Browne, can handle the rhetorical demands of his role.

You get the idea. It would be easy to produce a balanced yes-and-no account of this show, with a beneficent codicil to the effect that whether one admires the show or not, it is obviously an advance over the first production of Sellars' American National Theater, Timothy Mayer's flatfooted staging of Shakespeare's "Henry IV, Part One."

But, following Sellars' example, let's be reckless. This "Count of Monte Cristo" isn't a reconstruction of James O'Neill's famous old war horse. It's a deconstruction of it. And I didn't trust a minute of it.

Deconstruction is what literary critics of a certain school do to a text. They dissect it syllable by syllable. They trace its "systems," its "pretexts." They analyze its syntax, its vocabulary, the cultural mythology behind it, the mind that invented it, the secrets it is trying to hide--even from its author.

In his program notes for "The Count of Monte Cristo," Sellars follows the method of the good deconstructionist. "The evening contains at least five separate plays, each with its own method and tone. . . ." Sellars doesn't spell out the five, but watching the play, one caught traces of (1) spoof melodrama, (2) sincere melodrama, (3) redemptive father-and-son myth, (4) Expressionist farce, (5) Brechtian social drama and, for good measure, (6) some kind of proto-movie.

The virtue of the approach is that it dislocates our expectations in regard to O'Neill's version of "The Count of Monte Cristo" and really forces us to look at the play. Not that we've seen it before, but we may have seen a film or TV version (Richard Chamberlain did one a few years ago). At the very least we've seen movies like it, on the late show, maybe with Errol Flynn. Duels at dawn, long-lost secrets, purple dialogue, all that. Fun.

But by creeping up on the story from one angle and then suddenly switching tones, Sellars keeps us from getting comfortable with it. We see it less as a story than an as a cultural artifact: a Rosetta stone without a key. We see how strange it is, how violent it is, not unlike a Kabuki revenge play. (The odd makeup contributes to that, when it works.)

All this makes for an interesting exploration of the play's several levels--without, however, displaying the unity of a really well-argued essay. More crucially, it doesn't hit us at any level below the head. It doesn't stir us, or make us cry, or make us laugh, as it's quite evident the "Count of Monte Cristo" was written to do--even to those who think they see through the mechanism. Sellars' production is jumping with intellectual energy, even intellectual glee. It has tricks, but it has no magic.

It avoids magic. The line everybody remembers from "Count of Monte Cristo" is Dantes' triumphant "The world is mine!" as he cuts his way out of burlap sack plunging to the bottom of the ocean. He gains a perch on a rock! He is saved--and rich! O'Neill brought down the house with the line.

Thomas reads the line with the proper ring (he is turning into a fine heroic actor) but Sellars' staging checks the audience from responding in a strong way, even in a strongly satiric way. The scene starts promisingly, with the prison guards hauling the loaded sack up a freight elevator to a light bridge dripping with long black plastic loops: the ocean.

A fine malevolent image, with no problem as to its high-tech aspects. But, incredibly, the guards throw the body off the side of the bridge away from the audience, so that we miss a full view of its awful fall. When the sack hits the stage, a handful of packing-crate plastic pebbles spritzes up (the foam) and the bag goes into a series of funny gyrations reminiscent of a Mummenschanz routine. "The world is mine!" yells Thomas, rising out of a trapdoor. Polite applause.

In effect, Sellars has reduced the scene to a number of separate frames, each with its own tone and set of "codes." Conceptually it's interesting. Theatrically it could be effective, depending on how the images played off each other--what is film but a succession of matched frames?

These frames, however, are designed not to match. The close-up of the struggling bag might be from an animated cartoon. The figure rising from the ground could be from a Wagnerian opera. The mind can process the evocation of different theater conventions easily enough, but what happens to the emotional build of the scene?

I thought of John Barrymore's great crack about books with footnotes--that it was like having to keep running downstairs to answer the door on your wedding night. I thought as well of Dennis Rosa's 1977 revival of "Dracula," which allowed the modern audience to have its laugh at the play and then proceeded to scare it to death. That production could also be described as an exploration of the many levels of a crude old text, but Rosa was able to stitch his findings together into a unified experience.

Sellars just now doesn't seem to be interested in unity. It's not open-ended enough. He wants his shows to be about jolt and juxtaposition, the piquant clash of anachronism, the sudden change of signals. We saw it in his staging of Brecht's "Simone Machard" a couple of years ago at the La Jolla Playhouse, a barrage of theatrical signals from all over the lot--including the ceiling.

The manner is exhilarating, once or twice but, over the long haul, it can get to be enervating. Perhaps his next assignment should be to stage a play where he's forced to maintain a tone for a couple of hours, rather than to gleefully vary it at will.

He produced a glorious description of his aims for "Monte Cristo" in those program notes: "By the end of such an evening we experience a not entirely explicable sensation familiar to us from Shakespeare but foreign to us in most contemporary play writing--we feel that we have lived through many lives with these characters, and our exhaustion finally allows us to enter unawares a new world of secret profundity, terror and release." It's just this catharsis that's missing at the Kennedy Center.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
64°