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Berkeley Daily Planet, March 8, 2005


Shotgun Stages New Translation of Camus’ ‘The Just’


The Shotgun Players is running a new translation (Tom Hoover’s) of Albert Camus’ The Just (Les Justes) at the Ashby Stage. The program’s studded with quotations, not only from Camus, but also from Shakespeare, Thoreau, Emerson, emphasizing zeal for justice, such as Emerson’s “Heroism feels and never reasons, and therefore is always right.” The play explores that zeal which gives birth to revolutionaries — and the courage necessary for them to act.

Shotgun is staging its production on the centennial of the event it explores, the assassination of Russian Grand Duke Sergei, uncle to the Tsar, a precipitant event of the 1905 revolution. The play, first staged in 1955, explores the assassins’ experience. This production doesn’t have much to say about present day terrorism despite the attention it has received in that regard in the production notes and in other articles.

“Can one speak of terrorism without taking part in it? You have to be in the first row.” These words of Ivan “Yanek” (Taylor Valentine), in a bourgeois drawing room above the street which the Grand Duke takes to church, show the kind of hypnotic repetition the revolutionaries employ in thinking of their task, to keep in focus, “to put themselves in tune with murder.”

Each in the play has his own mantras; Yanek wants to feel he’s throwing a bomb not at a man, but at despotism itself, and retain his innocence; Stepan (John Nahigian), who’s been tortured, says he has “a crystal-clear idea of shame ... I survived; I have nothing to be ashamed of.”

When asked by Dora (Beth Donohue) “Why are you smiling?” Stepan replies, “Was I smiling? I do that sometimes.” And he asks, “How many [bombs] would it take to blow up Moscow?”

Camus’ play bristles with irony, each verbal sally unfolding unresolved contradictions. Dora and Yanek share a love deferred by duty. Dora wants “real love, more than just a monologue—an answer from someone else!” But, she also says, “It takes time to love; we barely have time for justice.”

The crisis keeps getting deferred, the suspense is prolonged. The question arises: What about the fate of children in the line of fire? Stepan demurs: If the bomb isn’t thrown, “thousands of Russian children will die of starvation. Have you ever seen a child die of starvation? I have!”

Doubts, deferred action and dissent take their toll on the characters’ nerve: one comrade asks Boris privately, shamefacedly to be transferred back to committee office work when one merely “issues the order of execution ... you don’t see the man you have to kill.” (Boris replies: “Even cowards can serve the Revolution; they just have to find their niche.”). Another looks forward to being arrested after the act: “In prison, there’re no decisions to be made.”

The final two acts take place in a gloomy dungeon and a dank cellar hideaway (good sets by Alf Pollard, well lit by Jared Hirsch), contrasting sharply with the placid drawing room—so filled with anxiety—of the first three acts. New characters are introduced, the latter two in particularly good turns: Foka (Eric Burns), a pithy trustee; Skouratov, commissioner of police (John Thomas, by turns dangerously affable and catty: “You start out wanting Justice, and end up organizing a police force!” Also, the religious Grand Duchess (Michele Beauvoir-Shoshani), who wants to forgive the conspirators against her husband’s life.

“Imagine God without prisons,” smiles Skouratov, introducing her, “How lonely he’d be!”

At least one critic has complained that the philosophical arguments made in the play slow down the action—but they are the true, Aristotelian form of action, a moral action. With little precedent to build on, Shotgun’s ambitious mounting of The Just, except at moments, is a little “monovalent,” as they say in critical theory; it’s too much on one track.

The ironies decay to sarcastic contradictions, the tragic dilemma becomes a melodrama—those protagonists Camus says he loves and respects seem a bit too pathetic. The suspense that impels the first acts isn’t equaled by its complement, an almost-tangible group sense of oppression, a thick atmosphere impeding action and speech. And the cynical and desperate revelations in dungeon and cellar aren’t balanced out by the tragically renewed sense of resolve, of community, of a future springing from a meager present.

The seeming hopelessness these revolutionaries face must be felt deeply by the audience, as well as the virtue that leads them on: “Men don’t live by justice alone!” and “When their bread’s stolen from them, what else do they have to live by?”

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