Rameau’s Nephew at Spooky Action Theater (review)

Rameau’s Nephew is a stage adaption of enlightenment era philosopher Denis Diderot’s fictional dialogue between a moralistic philosopher (“I”) and his foil, the greedy and hedonistic nephew of a famous composer (“He”). Too risqué to be published when it was written in the 1700’s, Rameau’s Nephew was made available to the public posthumously in a translation by Goethe. It went on to be one of Diderot’s most important works, influencing the work of Freud, Hegel and Marx, among others.

Despite its intellectual bona fides, this version of Rameau’s Nephew is no dry, academic parlour play. The script by Shelly Berc and Andrei Belgrader is a scathing satire touching on themes of morality, greed and social status in a way that is relevant today. Under the direction of Richard Henrich, Spooky Action’s production doesn’t quite live up to the script’s potential.

(l-r) Robert Bowen Smith as He and Ian LeValley as I in Rameau's Nephew at Spooky Action Theatre (Photo: Tony Hitchcock)

(l-r) Robert Bowen Smith as He and Ian LeValley as I in Rameau’s Nephew at Spooky Action Theatre (Photo: Tony Hitchcock)

The encounter with Rameau (the nephew), as “I” tells us in a direct-address monologue at the top of the show, occurs during the philosopher’s weekly visit to Café de la Regence to watch the chess masters of the day take each other on. There, he encounters the young derelict nephew who has recently been kicked out of the home of the wealthy family he was sponging off and is now destitute.

In 90 minutes, “He” and “I” engage in their own entertaining and at times risqué chess match of wits. The philosopher touting the virtue of strong morals, while Rameau convincingly argues that the baser pleasures of the flesh, fame and money are man’s true motivation in life. As Rameau says, “I know a lot of decent people who are not happy and a lot of happy people who are not decent.”

(l-r) Ian LeValley as I and Robert Bowen Smith as He in Rameau's Nephew at Spooky Action Theatre (Photo: Tony Hitchcock)

(l-r) Ian LeValley as I and Robert Bowen Smith as He in Rameau’s Nephew at Spooky Action Theatre (Photo: Tony Hitchcock)

But the play is not all waxing philosophical. Rameau is a free spirit, flitting from serious debate to silly gossip to vulnerable moments, all while acting out various characters and getting lost in his own complex and comical pantomimes. The philosopher is his not-so-reluctant audience, at times frustrated and even disgusted by Rameau’s behavior but ultimately unable to resist his sordid charms.  Henrich‘s staging emphasizes the push and pull of their relationship by adding slapstick humor, with varying success. One bit of business moving a set piece around near the beginning of the play was mostly met with silence. After another bit, an athletic sort of Heimlich maneuver later in the play, the audience burst into spontaneous applause.

Rameau’s Nephew
closes November 13, 2016
Details and tickets

The role of Rameau is challenging and Robert Bowen Smith is not consistently up to the task. The performance lacks precision and specificity of purpose so we can follow Rameau in each changeable moment and a certain grounded-ness so that even at his most absurd, Rameau is ultimately utterly believable. Bowen’s best moments are when he isn’t speaking – composing an aria out of coughing noises, or pantomiming an entire musical composition with the same passion and energy he would have if he was playing an actual violin.

As the philosopher, Ian LeValley makes a good straight man and foil to Bowen, landing laugh lines with impeccable timing and convincingly bringing to life the mix of repulsion and admiration he feels for Rameau.

Though performed in period costume (by Erik Teague), Rameau’s Nephew includes modern colloquial language and some audience interaction. The set (by Giorgos Tsappos) is a series of gridded walls and platforms. As Rameau pokes holes in Rameau’s assumptions, he does the same to the set – kicking and lifting a series of trap doors to reveal openings in the previously ordered space. The set is clever, but the metaphor of it is on-the-nose and the business of opening the trap doors is often awkward.

Though Spooky Action’s production of Rameau’s Nephew is uneven, the script is relevant and interesting. If you are looking for a fun night of philosophy, this is the place to go.


Rameau’s Nephew by Shelly Berc and Andrei Belgrader from Le Neveu de Rameau by Denis Diderot. Directed by Richard Henrich. Featuring Robert Bowen Smith and Ian LeValley. Set Design by Giorgos Tsappas. Lighting Design by Brittany Shemuga. Sound Design by David Crandall. Costume Design by Erik Teague. Produced by Spooky Action Theater. Reviewed by Amy Couchoud.

Amy Couchoud About Amy Couchoud

Amy Couchoud is a director, teaching artist and producer who has been active in the DC performing arts community since 2000. A Capital Fringe Festival veteran, Amy's work as a director includes former Fringe favorites Chocolate Jesus, The Sin Show and Logic, Luck and Love. She was the co-creator and director of E-geaux (beta), a mash-up of mobile technology and theatre which was featured on NPR's All Tech Considered. Amy has worked with Story District as a director, faculty member and producer of the annual Story District's Top Shelf since 2007. She holds a degree in Dramatic Arts from St. Mary's College of Maryland.



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