Review: ‘The Dreyfus Affair,’ Newly Relevant and Intensely Moving
By Jil Picariello, Theater Editor, May 3, 2017
“France for the French,” they scream on the streets of Paris in the moving and deeply troubling new production of The Dreyfus Affair at BAM.
But it’s not a Marine Le Pen rally from last week. It’s well over a century ago, and a sludge of nationalism and anti-semitism is roiling the land of enlightenment. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer, has been falsely convicted of treason. The story is an old one. But the way Ensemble for the Romantic Century, which creates historical productions that combine multimedia, music, and drama, tells it, is completely new.
Is it a concert? Is it a play? It doesn’t really matter of course, when it works. There are strange, abstract projections, there is minimal staging (the performers speak as much to the audience as to each other), and few props. Several members of the company sing, beautifully. The performances are restrained, which is a wise choice, given the inherent melodrama of the story. The music, however, is powerfully emotive, and performed with intense vitality.
Some choices seem head-scratchingly odd. The military officers dance mincingly to a baroque piece by Jean-Philippe Rameau. Other than the two main characters of Dreyfus and his defender, Émile Zola, there is little depth or nuance to any of the characterizations. No questions are asked, no doubts explored. And overall the production could use some serious nip-and-tuck. Scenes have several endings, significant moments are repeated (and repeated), and everything seems to go on just a bit too long.
But the music, the singing, and the lead performances are marvelous. Max von Essen (a Tony nominee for An American in Paris) brings a Victor Garber-like suavity to the role of Alfred Dreyfus, which makes his degradation all the more chilling. And Peter Scolari (yes, Hannah’s dad from Girls) is gripping as the author and Dreyfus defender Émile Zola.
In an interview with The Jewish Week, Eve Wolf, the writer of the piece, said that The Dreyfus Affair “is connected to Vichy France and to the rise of Marine Le Pen; it’s a line that never breaks.” As one of the final titles points out, a statue erected to Alfred Dreyfus in Paris was defaced with anti-semitic slogans as recently as 2002. Sadly, plus ça change…
The Dreyfus Affair runs at BAM Fisher (Fishman Space), 321 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, through Sunday, May 7, 2017. Run time: 2 hours and 40 minutes with 1 intermission. Written by Eve Wolf, directed by Donald T. Sanders, set and costume design by Vanessa James, lighting design by Beverly Emmons, sound design by Matthew Hottinger. Cast: Max Von Essen, Mark Evans, Megan Picerno, Mark Coffin, Mark Light-Orr, Timothy McDevitt, Dee Pelletier, Daniel Rowan, Richard Waddingham, Peter Scolari. Live music performed by Grace Park, Daniel Cho, Chieh-Fan Yiu, Nico Olarte-Hayes, Parker Ramsay, Max Barros, and Jake Chabot.
Cover: (l. to r.) Max von Essen, Mark Evans, Meghan Picerno, and Peter Scolari in ‘The Dreyfus Affair;’ photo: Shirin Tinati.