The notorious case of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish French military officer falsely accused of treason, imprisoned on Devil’s Island, and then released, has haunted the Jewish world as well as France for over a century. It inspired Theodore Herzl, then a young journalist covering the trial, to seek in Zionism a solution to the intractable hatred of the Jews he saw there. It reinvigorated the native anti-Semitism among the French right-wing, which clearly is flourishing today. It mobilized the forces among the left and the right across Europe that would clash violently in the 1930s. The case came to symbolize the corruption and injustice of the state or the perfidious conspiracy of alien powers, depending on your point of view. It offered something to outrage everyone.
The Ensemble for the Romantic Century is presenting a multimedia examination of “The Dreyfus Affair” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Fisher Space. It is well worth the trek to downtown Brooklyn for music lovers as well as anyone else who is intrigued by novel theatrical projects. Eve Wolf, the founder and artistic director of ERC and a renowned pianist, has written the script for the theatrical concert, which incorporates dialogue, spoken letters and diaries, live music, video projections, opera, and dance. A string quartet onstage is joined by a flutist and a pianist at times, and there are selections on the organ and harpsichord. Cast members sing arias from Fromental Halevy’s opera “La Juive,” as well as Maurice Ravel’s “Kaddish.” The classically trained voices are gorgeous and deeply moving, and the musicians excellent. The only aspect of the piece that didn’t work for me was the dancing, which seemed extraneous and took up too much time in an already long and demanding performance.
Wolf’s script traces the convolutions of the Dreyfus case through dialogue and explanatory video notes, while the musical selections explore the emotional maelstrom that tore through the country and the participants. It’s an astonishingly complicated story with many people involved — spies and double agents, a corrupt general staff, forged documents, mysterious suicides, and more. The climax of the Dreyfus affair in many ways came with Emile Zola’s impassioned denunciation, “J’accuse,” published in the French newspaper L’Aurore on January 13, 1898. This open letter to the French president led to Zola’s trial for libel and his escape to England. The phrase “j’accuse” has become shorthand for the struggle against government obfuscation and manipulation. Peter Scolari gives an impassioned performance as Zola, a superb balance to Max von Essen’s touching and sensitive portrayal of the tormented Dreyfus. Other standouts are Meghan Picerno as Lucie Dreyfus, the Jewish officer’s devoted wife, and Mark Evans as Mathieu Dreyfus, the brother who never ceased to try to prove Dreyfus’s innocence.
It’s astonishing how relevant this one-hundred-plus-year-matter feels, what with the conspiracy theories and perhaps real conspiracies swirling about. It is a reminder that factionalism — what we now call partisanship — can have disastrous consequences. BAM Fisher is a 321 Ashland Place in Brooklyn. Information is at www.bam.org or (718) 636-4100.
Old New Year
The Lost & Found Project is a work in progress. A resident company of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, Lost & Found became a core affiliate of FolksbieneRU in 2013, a partnership initiative of the Genesis Philanthropy Group and Folksbiene. The group works to engage Russian-speaking Jewish communities in New York, focusing on their immigrant experience. Judging by “Old New Year,” their fifth original production, they still have a way to go.
In the play, a group of attractive young actors tries to tell the story of intersecting characters who are struggling with the standard problems of young adult life. In that sense, “Old New Year” is not much different from a lot of television dramas where, after a while, you realize the characters are connected in somewhat unexpected ways. The cast seems to be talented, but it’s hard to tell because of the directorial choices. For some reason, all the characters perform at the same level of hysteria throughout the show. Perhaps the warehouse-like theater space added to the uniformity of sound, but it seemed everyone was screaming all the time at the performance I saw. The interesting set design was a plus, and the actors worked hard to give their characters some individuality. Still, the 100-minute play seemed a lot longer. The Jewish aspects of the play included a sweetly sung Yiddish lullaby and a discussion of the value of a bris.
Performances are through May 13 at 345 East 104th Street. For tickets, call (212) 213-2120.