If you think furs, Fabergé eggs, ballet when you think about 20th century Russia, Les Justes is here to remind you that for every lithographed Russian noblewoman traipsing around St. Petersburg in the latest Parisian fashions, there were hundreds of thousands of unseen serfs living on moss and wild roots in the countryside. For most Russians, life was spent in slums, sustenance farms, and purgatory prisons.
Such imbalance was untenable, and by 1900, a few tongues spoke “revolution.” Beginning in late 1904, thousands of workers stopped showing up to their jobs in protest. But things didn’t really get nasty until February. On the evening of the 17th, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandovich, uncle of Czar Nicholas II, was riding his carriage through the grounds of the Kremlin. While stopped at a gate, a revolutionary tossed a nitroglycerin bomb into his lap. There was barely time for the Grand Duke to notice the bomb, let alone throw it aside. Many of Alexandrovich’s body parts were never found.
Algerian novelist/playwright Albert Camus examined this incident in his 1949 play Les Justes, which, until now, was more likely to be performed in drama classes than on the professional stage.
WSC Avant Bard’s production benefits from a fresh translation by DC actress/director Rahaleh Nassri. Had the translator attempted to copy the rhythms and expressions of 1900’s Russia, she might have thrown an invisible wall between the cast and the audience. By using contemporary language, Nassri allows the actors to better engage the audience. And there are plenty of opportunities to do so.
Materials prepared for audience and press state that they are staging this drama because it feels “contemporary.” I’m not so convinced. The story has only tangential comparisons to 21st century terrorism, or the anti-austerity protests around the world, or to the Arab Spring. Instead, watching the play I witnessed a far more desperate time, one hopeless beyond our comprehension. This wasn’t a popular revolt, but instead it sprang from an educated elite, generous enough to give up a life of ease, but so narcissistic that they could not understand that the masses would never take up their cause.
Camus, active in the French Resistance during WWII, keenly understood the passions and contradictions of the revolutionaries. Each character’s actions are well-intentioned acts of destruction. The Grand Duke had governed the city tyrannically for years, and a small group of Socialist terrorists were marked for annihilation.
One by one, we meet the five conspirators. At the center of the drama is Yanek (James T. Majewski), an unlikely assassin. Called “The Poet” by his fellow travelers, he indeed has a poetic nature, and maintains his love for his fellow man, but the cause of revolution has overcome him, and he has thrown aside all other concerns, even his love for life. He is constantly antagonized by Stepan (John Strange), a veteran revolutionary who spent years in prison. His mental and physical scars have disabused him of all faith in humanity. His cynicism has stepped dangerously close to nihilism.
Dora (Nora Achrati) is Yanek’s ex-lover. Trained in chemistry, she builds the device that will ultimately end the Grand Duke’s existence. All these characters are portrayed angry, but with Dora, there is a sadness as well. She is the only character who understands how much her zeal has made her unhappy. In fits, she dreams of her apathetic youth, and wonders what she would be like had she not taken up this cause. She alone understands the futility of their movement. “Yes, we love the people” she says in one exchange with Yanek “But do the people love us? Do they know how much we love them? We never hear from them.”
The two men’s arguments are often mediated by Annenkov, the leader of the group. As portrayed by the always excellent Frank Britton, his nature is more predictable and approachable. Despite the revolutionary rhetoric, he is nothing more than the commander of a small military unit. Faced with decisions large and small, he neglects his own well-being, worrying, like a good commander, not only about the success of his mission but the safety of the men under his command.
Among the supporting cast, Graham Pilato stands out as Skuratov, the imperial official who attempts to get the jailed Yanek to turn in his comrades with all the suspect comity of a used-car salesman. Every word he speaks is ironic. If he said he was lying, you’d be convinced he was telling the truth.
The Artisphere’s Black Box Theatre is a very good venue for this play. With its black curtains and steel lighting grid, the space feels like the TV studio it once was as much as a theater. In this case, that’s a good thing, as the characters’ pontifications give those moments a talk show feel; a nice contemporary touch. Seated in the round the audience can, if it wants, imagine it is a jury judging the moral worth of each character. Here is the important question: how much humanity will you sacrifice in the name of “justice?” Camus leaves the answer open-ended.
by Albert Camus, adapted and translated by Rahaleh Nassri
Directed by Jay Hardee
Produced by WSC Avant Bard
Reviewed by Steve Hallex
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission