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Georg Büchner’s Danton’s Death has such a contemporary feel, it’s almost impossible to believe he wrote the play — hailed by many as “the best first play in world literature” — in 1835, at age 21. Büchner explores the facts and untoward ironies of the French Revolution with techniques we take for granted. But he was so far ahead of his time that Danton wasn’t produced until 1902.

When Büchner wrote the play, the history of the French Revolution had become an epic melodrama, etched in granite. There were heroes (the charismatic Danton, for many) and villains (Robespierre, the austere butcher), and the events unfolded in an inexorable order. But, Büchner asks, how did it feel to live during such sweeping events? Life is always more fluid, diverse, and smarmy than the historical record. Didn’t anyone ever waver? “I no longer intend to bow down to the dress uniforms and street-corner orators of history,” he wrote in a letter. “One can understand everything only when one allows no one to be too ugly or too trivial.”

Some say he didn’t know enough about dramatic tradition to imitate it; others, that he did (and knew Shakespeare’s Hamlet in detail). But Büchner scrapped rules and theories and wrote out of an impulse to set free — not glamorize or make heroic — the last 12 days of a condemned, profoundly disillusioned man.

The play begins four years after the revolution began. What was once a fairly united front, advocating popular sovereignty and the overthrow of the aristocracy, has split into warring factions. The poor are still poor, heads still roll, but idealism has given way to vengeance. “Moderates,” like Danton, who originally advocated the guillotine, now urge a more tempered approach. Robespierre, whose God was a “radical democrat,” envisions a new, pure, virtuous France. He sees the Reign of Terror as a moral, divinely inspired crusade and advocates beheading anyone remotely suspected of vice: no tribunals, no questions asked. “Uncertainty of punishment,” he proclaims, “encourages the guilty.”

The oppositions are clear, from afar. But Büchner unmasks them. He gives the absolutist Robespierre an amazing monologue: instead of being all-powerful, he confesses he’s a mere pawn of unseen forces, a Pontius Pilate with blood-soaked hands. Does he just walk on virtuous stilts? Some parts of his being spy on others, and he can’t tell which from which. At the end of the speech, he squares his shoulders, raises his chin, and goes back to being France’s sacred avenger.

And Danton, trapped in the feeding frenzy he started, becomes so contrary that practically every move he makes reveals a new, unexpected side. He’s a devoted husband and a womanizer who wants to ingest his lover’s beauty. He’s a patriot who drew back because he became “bored” with having to be the same person every day. He’s “lazy,” a comrade says, and would rather face the guillotine than give a rousing speech. He believes death is final and comforts others by saying that “the guillotine is the best physician,” then wades neck-deep in denial. His creations have betrayed him. Like Macbeth, much as he wishes he could, Danton cannot un-create the forces he helped to unleash.

Instead of pinning Danton down and specifying precisely what made him tick, Büchner opened him up. Danton becomes so mercurial — so lifelike (and unlike the image fixed by history) — he often expresses conflicting emotions in the same breath.

Danton’s Death has 32 scenes and 40 characters, which make it such a prohibitive piece to stage these days. UCSD Theatre’s current offering has some intriguing visual elements but falls flat on the verbal. Directed by Dominique Serrand, former artistic director of Theatre de La Jeune Lune, the opening-night performance felt stagey, and much of the physical business (usually Serrand’s trademark) became predictable.

The massive set, curtains and walls rising to expose new areas, was impressive to look at, especially a pyramid of empty chairs, stage left. But the center was a large, square hole, like an empty swimming pool, with stairs leading down. This configuration shoved all activity to the sides and necessitated actors often running in circles, then coming to sudden stops. These movements — also the woman in a rainbow-colored outfit Serrand invented called “Liberty,” who eavesdrops on events with sad eyes — may suggest grave symbolic implications (even though Büchner loathed symbolism). But after a while they were just people running around, again.

The acting, vocally, was a disappointment. One of the hallmarks of UCSD Theatre is how its actors meld character and speech. Even in a few brief lines, tangible beings emerge. Most of the Danton cast, however, had yet to inhabit their roles (and no one could agree on how to pronounce the name of Robespierre’s henchman, Saint-Just). They speechified rather than felt their lines and underlined them with studied gestures. Even the interior monologues were more attitude than personal expression. The overall effect: opening night felt underrehearsed, the cast trying to lock into place what Büchner sought to liberate.

Danton’s Death by Georg Büchner
UCSD Theatre and Dance, Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla
Directed by Dominique Serrand; cast: Marshel Adams, Kyle Anderson, Matthew Bovee, Maren Bush, Maritxell Carrero, Christina Cervanka, Lorene Chesley, Ross Crain, Sara Garcia, Demetrius Greene, Bianca Harlow, Zachary Harrison, Spencer Howard, Meghan McCauley, Evan Powell, Dan Shapiro, Emily Star, Jessica Watkins, Bowman Wright; scenic design, Kristin Ellert; costumes, Rachel Shachar; lighting, Stephen Sakowski; sound, Christopher M. Luessmann
Playing through February 28; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 2:00 p.m. 858-534-4574.

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