February 23, 2012 at 10:23 am EDT | by Patrick Folliard
Red revolution

‘Les Justes (The Just Ones)’
Through March 11
WSC Avant Bard
Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Rosslyn

James T. Majewski in the WSC AvantBard production of ‘Les Justes.’ (Photo courtesy C. Stanley Photography, courtesy WSC AvantBard).

“Terror is not for the tender,” says Stepan, a hardened revolutionary in WSC Avant Bard’s tight production of Albert Camus’ “Les Justes (The Just Ones).” When young Yanek (James T. Majewski) balks at blowing up the Grand Duke because the Russian royal’s entourage includes two children, Stepan (John Stange) sneers. It’s better to kill blue-blooded parasites no matter the age, and save the starving masses. According to him, Yanek is too soft.

Based on the true story of a group of Russian socialist-revolutionaries who assassinated the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich (uncle to the Tsar) in 1905, “Les Justes” — in true Camus fashion — grapples with matters of morality, in this case the ethics of revolution. While most of the action takes place offstage in the muddy streets of Moscow, the audience is primarily privy to the interior of the terror cell’s apartment headquarters — a shining world of ideas beautifully imagined by set and lighting designer David C. Ghatan as a bright white hexagonal platform encircled by four suspended white woodcut panels that allude to the socialist struggle.

It’s here that the group’s philosophies are heatedly debated and forged. Yanek, a poet who gave up a cushy life to join the revolution, yearns to be accepted by his fellow rebels as a true militant. Their decision to assassinate the Grand Duke presents an opportunity for Yanek to prove himself. He argues with Stepan and others about the best way to carry out the plan. He also debates love with sweet but dour Dora (Nora Achrati), a young chemist who’s been recruited to make bombs. Rounding out the opinionated crew are its leveled-headed leader Annenkov (Frank Britton) and a more tremulous member, Voinov (Theo Hadjimichael), who ashamedly admits he is unfit for violent rebellion, opting instead to join the budding party’s propaganda wing.

A second (and more successful) assassination attempt lands Yanek in prison where he meets cellmate Foka (Brian Crane), a convicted murderer/hangman who believes justice is reserved for the afterlife. Yanek’s visitors include Skuratov (Graham Pilato), a private investigator who comes seeking a confession; and the aristo’s widow, the Grand Duchess (Karen Novack) whose burgundy gown (compliments of costume designer Jen Bevan) contrasts sharply with the revolutionaries’ black-and-white period costumes. She conveys to Yanek that while her late husband was no saint, he wasn’t entirely bad either. Neither Camus’ terrorists nor his tyrant come off as villains.

Translated and adapted by D.C. actor/director Rahaleh Nassri, the production’s script remains faithful to the 1949 source while sounding completely contemporary. Director Jay Hardee (who’s gay) puts the diverse nine-person cast through the paces in this brisk 90-minute production. Here and there, performances might ring a little one note in their intensity, but overall they’re more nuanced than not.

A winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Camus’ works reflect his life experience, and what he, no doubt, questioned in his life. A product of French Algeria, Camus joined the French Communist Party in a reaction to the inequalities between Europeans and indigenous Algerians. During World War II he joined the French Resistance. Long after his death (a car crash in 1962), Camus’ questions about political murder feel as relevant as ever.

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