Robespierre, We Hardly Knew Ye | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Robespierre, We Hardly Knew Ye 

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Bailiwick Repertory

Christopher Cartmill's epic about the rise and fall of Robespierre is quite a bit longer than it is deep. Performed in two installments, with a total playing time of close to six hours, Incorruptible is grossly overwritten. It makes Barry Lyndon seem pithy. But the most remarkable thing about the play, other than its length, is that Cartmill actually expects the audience to sympathize, even identify with Robespierre. After all, the play argues, wasn't Robespierre just an idealistic kind of guy who lived in a time that didn't measure up to his ideals and so, what the hell, he instituted the Reign of Terror and wasted some 50,000 people?

Regardless of the playwright's intentions, I failed to sympathize with Robespierre, much less get a grip on him psychologically. In the first three-hour installment, subtitled On Innocence, we see the young Robespierre: his romantic fixation on his sister Charlotte, his departure for college, his friendship with Camille Desmoulins, his first love, and his budding law career, which catapults him into the political limelight. On Innocence is personal, not historical, in its focus, which was frustrating, particularly when the evening concluded with someone running in with news of the storming of the Bastille, as if to say, "Tune in tomorrow night for the thrilling conclusion of . . ." It's a tease. There are some cameo appearances by Rousseau and Danton, but generally history is a vague, sepia-tinted background from which Robespierre is meant to emerge brilliant and full of promise. But all I get is an understanding of Robespierre as a self-important putz.

In the second installment, On Experience, Cartmill attempts to capitalize on the previous evening's character orientation. Now we get some history, as we see Robespierre navigate the bloody and unpredictable tides of revolution. First the monarchy retaliates, but Robespierre braves the purge to become the number one firebrand, more influential even than Danton or Marat. Then the bloodletting gets out of hand when the commoners strike back. Robespierre distrusts the capricious masses and fears that his head could easily be the next to roll. So he institutionalizes the carnage in his famous Reign of Terror. But even this escapes his control and Robespierre--like a boss who's already fired everyone he could blame his failures on--gets the ax. Sounds exciting, doesn't it? But partly because of the script, and partly due to James Marsters's unchanging portrayal of Robespierre, On Experience is only slightly more substantial than the endless feather dusting of On Innocence.

One problem with the script of Incorruptible is that there are so many gratuitous scenes. We see Robespierre with his friend Camille; Camille with his girlfriend, Lucile; Robespierre with Camille and Lucile; Robespierre with his girlfriend, Ophelia; Robespierre with Camille, Lucile, and Ophelia . . . Get the idea? Now add various layers of artistic sediment to the play--incomprehensible dream sequences, redundant tableaux vivants--and introduce a theatrical wild card in the form of "the Gentleman, an angel," who takes Robespierre on abstract side trips. Throw in the angel of death, just for balance. Finally, after four hours of putting off the inevitable, have Robespierre sleep with his sister. Only don't actually show them doing it. Don't actually show anybody doing anything. Talk about and around it. Beat the bush of history but never flush the quarry.

To say that Cartmill provides a comprehensive if not essential picture of Robespierre would be a lie. Cartmill's treatment is one-sided. He blames the Reign of Terror on Robespierre's disciple, Louis Saint-Just, who plays Mephistopheles to Robespierre's Faust. And what guilt Cartmill doesn't absolve, he attempts to justify by portraying Robespierre as a rational man caught up in irrational times--a victim, even, of his own ideals. In one scene after another Cartmill shows Robespierre wounded in love, frustrated by vain and foolish politicians, and betrayed by the very people he sought to liberate. Where is Robespierre's raging paranoia, his nihilism? Cartmill even goes so far as to obscure the fact that Robespierre attempted suicide to avoid the guillotine.

Of course, James Marsters (as Robespierre) carries this production on his shoulders. In several ways his characterization is appropriate--contemplative, idealistic, and unaware of his own gradual corruption. But Marsters isn't particularly animate. Nor is he statuesque. He's restrained. So watching the progress of Robespierre's corruption--which is apparently a major point of this saga--is a little like watching Jell-O harden. I get no clear picture of how Robespierre, the champion of reason, the opponent of capital punishment and censorship, could justify the Reign of Terror. Maybe it's the script, rather than Marsters's performance. It's hard to say. But Robespierre was one of the most enigmatic figures in French history, and here in this play, it's like, what's to know?

Instead, Cartmill gives us the enigma of Louis Saint-Just, whose motivations we're never allowed to divine, although we're taunted with details about his being an artist, pornographer, and lover of a great many women. With melodramatic excess, Cartmill characterizes Saint-Just as evil incarnate. Now, match this character with the performance given by Andrew Scott, who plays Saint-Just with an affected, prissy voice and demeanor. The voice alone is reason enough to send him to the guillotine. And the enigma of Saint-Just is secure, since Scott's performance discourages any interest the audience might have in his character.

The best all-around performance is given by Tom Orf, who plays the mysterious "Gentleman, an angel," and a couple of other, smaller roles. Orf is genuinely funny, intelligently funny, and he makes sense out of the script. With a few more actors like Orf (and substantial rewrites) you could pull this show off.

Not that the rest of the cast are turkeys. Their relative talents fall somewhere between the high and low standards provided by Orf and Scott. Jennifer Trinkner (as Charlotte), for instance, is the wistful queen of melodrama. Dan Ruben, Scott Mikita, and Steve Darnall are a trio of low comedians with a fat man/thin man/wimp chemistry that they, and few others, find amusing. Other performances range in style from romanticism to realism, with a good deal of generic "character acting" in the walk-on parts. The one constant seems to be that the cast is preoccupied with the idea of being in a historical drama which they feel compelled to bring to life. But enthusiasm is a meager substitute for thoughtfulness and creativity. And with a text so shallow on characterization, you'd think that the cast would show more initiative in devising their own subtext.

David Zak's direction doesn't correct for the diffuse and often evasive nature of Cartmill's script. Zak moves the actors around the stage all right, and he hustles the play along as quickly as possible. I think he's even exhausted all conceivable uses for a half dozen chairs and a table. I especially liked it when the lowlife republicans came in and knocked over the chairs. Very butch. Yet really, Zak's directorial touches--including the backstage weeping during the prison scene--simply ornament the gratuitous. What's missing is truth. Six hours of stage time will wear any theatrical artifice to shreds. Without truth, an incident has no meaning; it never becomes an event. And the only moment of truth I saw was when Augustin, Robespierre's brother (played by Scott Calcagno) leapt over a chair and ran on all fours like a terrified rat when they came to take him to the guillotine. I don't credit that moment to Zak.

This July 14 is the 200th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. France will be facing some of the ugly truth about its past, and without the aid of the sort of revisionist history in Incorruptible. It's said that learning from history helps to keep us from repeating it. If that's true, how can we explain Stalin's purge, Mao's cultural revolution, Pol Pot's killing fields? Maybe we never understood how and why Robespierre came to power. We're sure as hell not going to figure it out from this play.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.


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