New Light on The Count of Monte Cristo

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(Photo by Hunter Canning) Pictured: Tom Frank as Monte Cristo with the cast

 

by: Paulanne Simmons

 

In 1844, Alexandre Dumas completed one of the greatest adventure novels of all time, The Count of Monte Cristo. The story of how Edmond Dantes, falsely accused of being a Bonapartist traitor and sentenced to a life of imprisonment escapes and, as the rich Count of Monte Cristo, seeks revenge on the men responsible for his imprisonment, has become a staple of the western canon.

Since 1844, The Count of Monte Cristo has been translated into virtually all modern language and has never been out of print. There have been at least twenty-nine films based on the novel, as well as several television series. So one can have every expectation that it will survive New Light Theater Project’s latest adaptation.

This production, with a script by Jared Reinmuth and direction by Cailin Heffernan is not content with the swashbuckling thriller Dumas wrote, but rather turns the story into a surreal tale of memory and madness, starting when the count (Tom Frank) returns to the dungeon where he was once imprisoned.

The cast of thirteen serves as a singing chorus and musicians (the production features a score by Henry Aronson), as well as the ensemble from which the actors in the various scenes of Dantes’ life are drawn, and percussionists who produce sound effects throughout the drama. They sit on all three sides of the stage, observing the action when they are not participating. Occasionally they engage in ritualistic movement or actual dance.

But that’s not all. A sheet serves as a backdrop and a screen on which are projected images, photos, sketches, dates and all purpose otherworldly scenes.

This is a busy play indeed. In fact, the production is so overwrought and the scenes so jerky and jumbled that it’s often difficult to figure out what is what. Add to this the occasional double casting and the portrayal of the Count of Monte Cristo and Dantes (who are one and the same) by two different actors, and it’s also hard to discern who is who. And the uniformly incompetent acting doesn’t help.

The Count of Monte Cristo is a long book. But that doesn’t mean the production has to be two and a half hours long (an eighty-minute first act, followed by a ten-minute intermission, followed by a sixty minute second act). It’s anyone’s guess who needs more stamina, the actors or the audience.

New Light Theater Project is an ensemble-based theater company with ambitious goals. Unfortunately, this production succumbs to the greatest danger in ensemble work, the tendency to sink into pretension and insularity.

Monte Cristo plays through Feb. 13 at Urban Stages, 259 West 30 Street, NewLightTheaterProject.com.

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