Across the street from Bartram's Garden in Southwest Philly, a former paint factory on Grays Avenue is serving as the venue for three shows in this year's Fringe Festival, including Albert Camus' The Just, presented by Übungsflugzeug Theatre Company.
While the warehouse venue is decidedly nontraditional, The Just happens to be one of the few traditional plays in this year's Fringe line-up. Camus, a member of the French resistance during World War II, wrote the play in 1949, basing it on the stories of members of Russia's Socialist-Revolutionary Party who aimed a 1905 assassination plot at the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, uncle of Nicholas II, last emperor of Russia. Inspired by the incendiary violence of the French Revolution, the SR revolutionaries plotted assassinations of political elites they believed were killing the Russian people slowly and painfully through their corrupt leadership.Can terrorism be driven by morality, ethics, honor, even love? This is the central question explored in The Just.
Gil Johnson, founder of Übungsflugzeug and director of The Just, selected Camus' play for its strong resonance with our present moment, in which instances of global and domestic terrorism fill the news and social movements at home and abroad reach heightened levels of urgency, verging on desire for drastic and potentially violent confrontation. "This play humanizes and explores the moral struggles of people whose intention is to take extreme, violent action," said Johnson. He worked on a new and original translation of the play for this production with the goal of modernizing the language.
The moral drama centers on the characters of Ivan ("Yanek") Kaliayev and Dora Doulebov. Both understand the difference between being motivated by love and motivated by hate. At their strongest, lead actors Rich Bradford as Yanek and Johanna Dunphy as Dora convey in melancholy overtones that, in placing their ideals above all else, the possibilities of loving or being loved by another person are subsumed by the love of the cause.
The biggest challenge was the plausibility of Yanek's character, which demands an exceptional intensity. Yanek is the most sensitive and conscientious of the revolutionaries, but along with nobility of spirit we must feel his rage also. We must be able to believe he is capable of murdering another man in cold blood while looking him directly in the eyes. Bradford's depiction never instilled sufficient conviction. Dunphy does better with Dora, a character with her own longings and complexities. However, the two often appear mismatched in spirit and lacking in genuine chemistry.
The Just is the debut production of Übungsflugzeug. Translated from German, Übungsflugzeug literally means "practice aircraft." It figuratively means flapping one's wings in an attempt to fly, or aiming higher than what one has previously been able to achieve. Übungsflugzeug has taken on an ambitious and thought-provoking play for its maiden flight.
Albert Camus' The Just. Sept 14, 17-18, and 23-24. Panorama, 5213 Grays Ave. Tickets: $23. Information: 215-413-9006, www.fringearts.com.