by JK Clarke
European history is dotted with notable miscarriages of “justice” as, by extension, is its literature. France, in particular, gave us both the Man in the Iron Mask (a man imprisoned by his rival for being the rightful heir to the throne) and the fictional Jean Valjean who, for stealing a loaf of bread, was imprisoned for nineteen years! A lesser known, but possibly more impactful story is that of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, falsely accused and imprisoned for treason. Sadly, this was a very real story that exposed a very pervasive culture of anti-semitism in not just France, but all of Europe. The story has been studied and recounted in countless works of literature, but it’s being told anew in The Dreyfus Affair, a play with music written by Eve Wolf and presented by Ensemble for the Romantic Century (ERC) through May 7 at the BAM Fisher theater in Brooklyn.
While the entirety Dreyfus Affair is lengthy and complex, it involves a case of treason in which a philandering French military officer, Major Charles Marie Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy was spying for the German Empire. Documents revealing his espionage fell into French hands and, at a loss for a suspect, French officers eventually settled on Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a highly regarded French Alsatian Jewish officer. On specious evidence Dreyfus was convicted and sent to Devil’s Island, a military island prison in French Guiana, known for its deplorable conditions. The event triggered—or rather awakened—virulent feelings of anti-Semitism in France, and when compelling evidence unearthed by Dreyfus’s brother Mathieu revealed his innocence and Esterhazy’s guilt, the military tribunal rejected it. Dreyfus’s supporters were outraged, most notably famed writer and journalist Emile Zola (Peter Scolari), who penned perhaps the most famous missive in newspaper history (for which he was subsequently convicted of libel): the open letter to French President Félix Faure, J’Accuse!, in which he called out society, the government and the military for its blatant anti-semitism and the gross miscarriage of justice.
Under the direction of Donald T. Sanders, The Dreyfus Affair attempts to tell the entire story through expository speeches, dramatic scenes, multimedia projections, operatic song and often excessively long orchestral pieces. It’s no easy feat, and the attempt is probably ill-advised. For while there are gorgeous moments from a supremely talented cast and musicians, the lulls in the story are too frequent and too disengaging.
The string quartet of Grace Park, Daniel Cho, Chich-Fan Yiu and Nico Olarte-Hayes is exceptional, playing everything from haunting Hitchcock-esque scores to gorgeous melodies (composers featured range from Ligeti to Franck to Ravel). What’s more, we are treated to the magnificent singing of Max von Essen (Alfred Dreyfus), Mark Evans (Mathieu Dreyfus), Timothy McDevitt (as a featured singer, but who also plays Lt. Georges Picquart) and the sublime Meghan Picerno (Lucie Dreyfus). Vanessa James’ sumptuous period costumes and David Bengali’s inventive combination of abstract and realistic projection design add a compelling look and feel to the production.
However, the parts simply didn’t add up to a whole. Despite the subject matter being intricate and complex, the two hour forty minute run time could likely have been trimmed by nearly an hour without any loss of message. Far too much energy was spent in expository moments, and orchestral pieces were, under the circumstances, prime for abbreviations.
Considering the similarities between the era of this tragic event of and the recent re-emergence of hate and intolerance in our society, the Dreyfus Affair itself certainly warrants a reexamination. ERC and Ms. Wolf’s version, however, fails to get its point across with the impact one might hope for.
The Dreyfus Affair. Through May 7 at BAM Fisher (Fishman Space, 321 Ashland Place, Downtown Brooklyn). www.BAM.org/music/2017/the-dreyfus-affair
Photos: Shirin Tinati