On February 17, 1905, an intellectual dressed as a laborer stepped out of a crowd and threw a pipe bomb into the carriage of Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich Romanov, the tsar's uncle. Bits of the grand duke went everywhere, and the Russian Revolution was on. A hundred years later, Russia is still struggling to be free, and people everywhere are still throwing (or carrying, or driving) bombs into carriages, hoping that violence will bring about a peaceful and just society. It's an irony that wasn't lost on Albert Camus, and a story that he explored with great sympathy in The Just, now being performed by the Shotgun Players at the Ashby Playhouse.
Shotgun has been on a Russian history trip lately, what with The Death of Meyerhold two years ago, and Travesties last December. The company seems to go through phases; remember that a few years ago, it was every conceivable variation on the ancient Greeks. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, if it means that several different windows onto the same period in history are opened. And in this case, one play led immediately to another: Tom Hoover was so affected by Meyerhold that he realized he had to translate The Just, and Shotgun had to produce it.
The Just tells the story leading up to Sergei's disintegration by focusing on the cell of the Revolutionary Socialist Party tasked with the assassination. In an elegant apartment above the route the grand duke's carriage often takes, five people scheme and struggle, wrestling with their politics, their consciences, and each other. As the tension builds -- are they going to blow this guy up, or what? -- distinct and conflicted personalities emerge: the cell's conciliatory leader Boris, the bellicose Stepan, the foppish poet Yanek, the passionate bomb-builder Dora, the uncertain Alexis. There's history between some of them, which is hinted at but wisely left to the imagination.
Speaking of history, little context is given. The conspirators rail against Sergei and everything he stands for, but don't lay out the facts of his considerable evildoing, preferring instead to anguish over love and justice. Perhaps Camus' point is that the details aren't as critical as what they drive people to do, and not as interesting as the emotional and mental acrobatics required to make intelligent people into murderers. Or maybe he was focused on the one-upmanship between people determined to be the bravest, most self-sacrificing, and most revolutionary. His characters argue over who gets to throw the bomb, leading to bizarre moments such as the one where Boris tries to placate Stepan by saying, "I don't get to throw the bomb either, I have to wait here. There are rules," or reassures Alexis (a sweet and shy Ryan O'Donnell) that it's okay to want a safer job in the revolution, like writing propaganda. Camus finds some humor in showing us five people trying to out-revolutionary each other.
Because they aren't just out to oust one gilt-braid-encrusted nabob, or even to free Russia. They fantasize that their act will kick in the door of every prison cell everywhere. Their delusions of their own power are matched only by their romantic notions about death and sacrifice. Dora in particular is in love with Camus' notion that what they're doing is somehow ameliorated because they're prepared to sacrifice their own lives as well as those of others: "To kill and then to die, but there is a greater happiness -- the gallows!" Beth Donohue turns in her usual powerful performance, wringing vulnerability from lines like "It takes time to love. We barely have time for justice" in her husky voice. She is well matched in Cassidy Brown as Boris, but not as much so in Taylor Valentine as Yanek. He's still a little raw, and Donohue is a big presence to match. John Nahigian's Stepan has an easier time of it with lines like "Terror is not for the delicate." Things come to a head when Stepan yells absurdly at Dora, "You're a woman and you have a poor idea of love." Donohue times her response perfectly: "Well, I have a crystal-clear sense of shame."
As intense as the first act is, things get more varied in the second, once Yanek is in jail and Camus gets fanciful. In Butiri Prison, for example, Yanek meets fellow prisoner Foka, who seems to exist specifically to point out the gap between Russia's frustrated intelligentsia and her frustrated peasant masses. Played by Eric Burns, Foka is brusque and quick to snub. When he learns that Yanek is also in jail for murder, he sniffs, "Just one? That's nothing." Foka makes Yanek's highfalutin ring hollow. "Were you hungry?" Yanek asks, clearly hoping to make a didactic point about poverty being a violent act of the nobility against the downtrodden. "I was thirsty," Foka retorts, and Yanek is faced with human frailty; Foka's murders were committed in a drunken rage.
By contrast, Yanek's second visitor Skouratov, the chief of the secret police, is a slick dandy. "The lighting down here is terrible," he fusses. "Nobody looks very good in a dungeon." John Thomas is great as Skouratov; this is one of the best things he's done with Shotgun, and he's lovely in the role, with some of his menace from The Water Principle, tempered with a likability that belies the fact that Skouratov is trying to get Yanek to sell out his comrades.
But the most telling of the prison interactions, and one of the rawest emotional moments in the whole play, is that between Yanek and the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, played with ponderous grace by Michele Beauvoir-Shoshani. The duchess really did visit Yanek in Butiri. As played here, she comes off as the sanest of the lot; every time Yanek tries to push her away or deny her husband's humanity, she comes back with a simple, unanswerable retort. Describing her husband sleeping in his chair, Elizabeth dashes all of the conspirators' rationalizations.
The whole jail sequence also shows off the subtlety of the visual design by Alf Pollard, Christine Crook, and Jared Hirsch. Pollard has a nice contrast between the elegance of the apartment and the raw, moldering walls of the jail cell, subtly lit by Hirsch. Crook does an interesting thing with the costumes: all of the conspirators are wearing something red in the first act, but not in the second, where the head of the secret police shows up in a big red coat. Is he the new face of the revolution, or has the revolution been co-opted? Are those different things? Director Patrick Dooley keeps down the flourishes and anachronisms that usually mark Shotgun's historical pieces. There are no plastic milk crates or carnival-striped bags of popcorn anywhere in this one, just Rimsky-Korsakov and the clop-clop of hooves drawing Yanek's -- and Russia's -- fate ever closer.
What's fascinating about The Just is watching the struggle within the struggle: every member of the cell has a different idea of what is appropriate and useful, and these ideas shift as time passes and the grand duke goes unassassinated. Rather than represent revolutionary groups as homogeneous masses, Camus gives us a group of finely developed individuals pushed to the edge by despair.
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