nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 9, 2008
A great deal of effort has gone into Hotel Savant's revival of Antonin Artaud's The Cenci. A new, contemporary-sounding translation by Richard Sieburth was commissioned. The Ohio Theatre has been entirely reconfigured, with a startling maze occupying much of its interior, and the scenery spilling onto the balcony near the front door and even to a rear staircase leading to the building's cellar. Audience seating has been moved as well, onto risers that surround the vast playing area on two sides. (Problematically, this configuration means that there's no rest room access except for a short period just before the show begins, and that once you arrive in your seat it will be tough to exit until the show is over.)
Peter Ksander's set design is impressive, and when it's lit by Miranda K. Hardy's lighting design it is often quite beautiful and always interesting. Director John Jahnke, who is the conceiver and adaptor of this production, has a painter's eye for creating stunning stage pictures, and he does so frequently in The Cenci. (Even when I didn't recognize a particular reference point for what I was seeing, I was constantly aware of the artfulness of the arrangement of elements on the stage, especially when everything stops to form a kind of living tableau or frieze.)
The play itself, though, seems underwhelming. It's about a sort of monstre sacre, Cenci, a rich Italian nobleman who victimizes his family so brutally that they eventually conspire to assassinate him. Anthony Torn portrays Cenci with both relish and detachment, so that we can thoroughly examine what an unholy rotter he is; but Artaud/Sieburth never supply any motivation to this character and so he's just nasty without any reason to be so. A good deal of the play is given over to depictions of this nastiness.
When at last the family pulls together to do away with their oppressive patriarch, the narrative starts to pick up steam. They hire a pair of assassins, who eventually carry out their bloody mission, and even though the murder takes place off stage, its preparations and its aftermath are realized with a delicious bravura that renders this the play's most compelling segment.
Jahnke makes points here about power, about hypocrisy, and about sexual repression, but it's all terrain he's covered in his previous works. Ultimately I found little to move me in The Cenci; this new production seems more than anything else to prove that the conventional wisdom about Artaud's play (i.e., that it's not particularly stageworthy) has been correct.