Journeying back to late 1800s, we see how anti-semitism, the sympathies of a poet, and military law collided in The Dreyfus Affair. Alfred Dreyfus, originally a member of the French artillery, was found to have committed treason. He eventually served in Devil’s Island, before Poet, Novelist, and Playwright Émile Zola took up his cause, and wrote an open letter to the French President in the newspaper, L’Aurore.
Ensemble for the Romantic Century’s genre-bending theater work mixes drama, opera, and video art. Each piece (the music, the projections, the stage script) keep their separate potency, and never eclipse the other. What is most unique about ERC is the musical element, with selections from György Ligeti, César Franck, and Maurice Ravel. Segments of the snappy dialogue are broken up by larger tracks of music.
Dreyfus is brilliantly portrayed by Max von Essen. The Tony nominated actor, best known for his roles in American in Paris, Evita, and Dance of the Vampires has an astonishing appeal. Von Essen is a standout, approaching each moment with absolute truth. As Dreyfus, his humanity and frailty is wrapped up in his love of family and country. As the case progresses over time, his humility presents in the softest tones. Throughout the performance, he is absolutely composed, even as the whirlwind of justice changes the course of his life.
Side by side is his doting wife and his most loyal brother, Mathieu Dreyfus. Time stands still while they fight for his cause. This roller coaster of a journey inspired journalists, artists, and of course, French supporters of many denominations.
The role of Zola, is played by Peter Scolari, recently seen as Lena Dunham’s father in HBO’s Girls. In The Dreyfus Affair. Gracing the stage in the earlier parts of the performance, he captures the moment, speaking against the French military for their unspeakable action. J’Accuse is one of the most impassioned articles ever brought to light by Zola, and Scolari’s outpouring of emotion is grounded in passion and justice.
Some fine moments are performed by Meghan Picerno as Lucie Dreyfus. It’s surprising to hear her break out into song, and her voice is clear and crisp; the whole tones are soothing and perfected. The Dreyfus Affair also features some fine dancing from a very integrated chorus, filling out the stage. They have a finesse that speaks to their intelligence and understanding.
With ERC’s production values, the Fishman Space at BAM seems utilitarian. While period costumes hold the era, projections juxtapose formality and fun. When the video images move, they remind one of an impressionist painting or a cinemagraph. The landscape of Paris is important when telling a story like this. Supertitles reveal key dates and plot points, while images of actual magazines are shown. Anti-Semitic depictions have never been so harsh.
What makes Ensemble for the Romantic Century so special is that they find the truth within the times. Writer Eve Wolf and Musicologist James Melo conduct a deep investigation of the matter. Organ and harpsichord break through in Act Two, and the music often stands alone. For over ten minutes, we hear piano, violin, viola, and cello, making it a rare and sublime listening experience.
The Dreyfus Affair was performed at BAM Fisher (Fishman Space) until May 7 at 321 Ashland Place in Brooklyn, New York.
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