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A CurtainUp Review

Nijinsky: Death of a Faun,

A famous impresario from the world of dance--Diaghilev-- is dead. His former protégé and lover Nijinsky is a broken man, wasting away in a Swiss sanatorium. Playwright David Pownall, imagines that as Diaghilev's body is being carried to its final resting place, Nijinsky comes out of his comatose state long enough to pay tribute to the man who both made and destroyed him. He's not in the procession, but creating his own requiem in the basement of the sanatorium. It certainly seems the stuff of dramatic memoir. With former ballet star Nicholas Johnson as Nijinksky, audiences can also expect some excerpts from Nijinsky's best known roles.

Add to all this the distinguished trail blazed by this production at the Edinburgh International Festival, in Tel-Aviv, Bournemouth, Cheltenham and Chichester Festivals, not to mention a 1993 sell-out engagement in London, New York audiences should indeed consider themselves lucky to enjoy a limited run (through 4/13) of Nijinsky -Death of a Faun at St. Clements auditorium.

But a funny thing happened on the way from these acclaimed showings to the stage of St. Clements. The Nijinsky-Death of a Faun, I saw during its opening night performance was numbingly one-note. Unlike the richly staged Barrymore, with Christopher Plummer's terrifically dimensional and entertaining portrait of actor John Barrymore this production seems twice as long as its actual one and a half-hour intermissionless running time. While Plummer's every word was clear as a lake even though I sat towards the rear of the orchestra, Nicholas Johnson's Nijinsky rantings were often murky even from my fourth row center vantage point.

Since we are reliving the life of a dancer, we do have excerpts from Petrushka, the Golden Slave in Scheherezade and, of course, The Faun, to add some visual interest and beautiful music to the monologue. These bits (and bits is all we get), do show off Mr. Johnson's prodigious talent as a dancer. Unfortunately the dancing is at all times overwhelmed by the shrillness of the temporarily come-to-life madman and only serves to make one aware of what this evening might have been but isn't. There are other bits of business which, unlike the dance snippets, are more irritating than entertaining. As he changes from his sanatorium robe into a suit fit for his own private requiem, Mr. Johnson treats us to a superfluous nude view of his rear. On several other occasions he lustily chews on an apple. To show a glimpse of what a normal, playful Nijinsky was like? Whatever the purpose, I can't think of anything more irksome than to listen to someone else's apple-eating. In more serious moments he jumps onto the table communing with Jesus on a cross. This cross, wielded like a small dagger, seeds bits of dialogue like "I see only a dancer, not God."

The staging is gloomy and dismal enough to give the sense of the sanatorium's lower regions-- so much so that it seemed to put a number of people around me into the sort of comatose daze in which the real Nijinsky lived out his life. But , as David Pownall's muse roused the tortured dancer to perform this frenzied requiem, so Nijinsky's alter ego noisily tosses chairs and ladders any time someone in the audience might be tempted to catch forty winks. "All dancers are violent," he declares during one such noisy incident. "audiences expect it of them."

I don't know about Nijinsky's audience, but this audience seemed evenly divided between the glassy-eyed, the fidgety and a smallish group of those wildly enthusiastic about Mr. Johnson's performance. I left with a sense of regret that I'd never seen him at the Royal Ballet, or that he would have done more of Petrushka and less of this Madman roused from his coma long enough to tell his lover and destroyer "you made me but you did not have the right to break me."

If you want to see whether you would count yourself among the "wildly enthusiastic" the price of admission is reasonable enough. Senior citizens and students can avail themselves of half price rush ticket($10). The theater also accepts TDF. ©right April 1997, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
Nijinsky: Death of a Faun
by David Pownall
starring Nicholas Johnson
Directed by Jennie Buckman
Opening date 4/01; closes 4/13
broadwaynewyork.com


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