In Delirium: after the sorrows of young werther
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 3, 2006
In Delirium: after the sorrows of young werther, a solo play adapted by Vortex Theater Company from Goethe's famous novel, is thrilling, exhilarating theatre. Actor Joshua Randall delivers an authentic tour de force as the romantic young hero of the piece, and his collaborators—most notably co-adaptor/director Gisela Cardenas and lighting designer Lucrecia Briceno—offer some pretty astonishing work themselves. For those in search of ambitious and audacious young theatre artists flexing their mucles, In Delirium is can't-miss theatre.
The story, condensed and contemporized admirably by Cardenas and Randall, is about a young man named Werther who falls overwhelmingly in love with a beautiful young woman named Lotte. Werther is an artist by temperament (though his mother wants him to get a job in the diplomatic corps); but vocation and avocation pale beside his infatuation, which blooms into puppy love, then idealized love, and finally an obsessive love that proves debilitating and dangerous.
When he meets her, Werther knows that Lotte is engaged to another man, Albert. But Albert is away, and so for a blissful several months, Werther deludes himself that his budding friendship for Lotte will grow into something deeper and less one-sided. Of course, Albert eventually returns, and the pair wed. What is left for Young Werther but, as the title has it, sorrow? Infinite sorrow, so it seems...
The arc of the play follows Werther from the exuberant highs of the first throes of romance to the desperate lows of unrequited love, and Randall encapsulates the journey magisterially. He's a giddy schoolboy at the beginning, inflamed and eager, unable to contain or control his enthusiasm: he is the first and only person ever to feel what he's feeling, and the joyous urgency leaps out of him. The sweetness, the naivete, the egoism of first love are worn so guilelessly on Randall's sleeve that we can't help but cherish them.
Randall's transformation, as Werther attempts to rationally come to terms with the reality of his situation, is gradual and completely convincing. We feel the seething anger: when he spits out the name of his rival, it's like a curse, or an oath; when he recounts a meeting with Albert during which he admires that gentleman's pistols, the emotion is cool and concentrated, and it's not clear whether he means to do harm to Albert or to himself. And then, so subtly that the exact moment can't be pinpointed, Randall shows us Werther's surrender to his obsession. It's a truly remarkable performance.
Cardenas's staging is simplicity itself. The stage is bare except for a chair and a fallen chandelier, the latter an effective symbol of Werther's brief and unsuccessful career working for the Ambassador, the period when he's trying but failing to forget Lotte. Randall moves around the stark space with an animal's raw energy; with his head shaved and his feet bare, and dressed in pajamas and a lush blue-green robe, he reminded me of the young Yul Brynner in The King and I, bounding and pronouncing and pontificating with a paradoxical mix of bluster, assurance, and wounded self-doubt. (The robe, by the way, is an inspired touch on the part of costume designer Oana Botez-Ban, giving the manic Werther something to play with throughout the performance: we're constantly aware of the posturing, and the delight in it, that our young hero takes as he recounts this story.)
Carving out and defining the space is the magnificent lighting by Lucrecia Briceno. Without ever feeling gimmicky, the design constantly plays games with us on the stage, mapping out a constricted circle here, a lush arc there, and, in my favorite section of the piece, a narrow arch of light on the rear wall which Werther steps in and out of as he considers the challenges of his circumstance.
John Ivy's sound design is spare and immaculate. With set designer Jian Jung, he's created a wonderfully resonant hollow sound when Werther bangs on the walls (which he does more than once) that speaks volumes to what's going on inside our hero's heart and mind.
This is, in sum, a dazzling effort by an impressive and accomplished young company that, we hope, we will be hearing much more from. Whether it's been decades or days since you last went through what Young Werther is going through, the resonance of his inflamed and then doused passion is likely to move you, in this rich and emotional theatricalization of his story of romance and obsession.