If someone were to take a doctoral dissertation that they found fascinating and attempt to turn said thought-provoking scholarly discussion into a play, the result would undoubtedly mirror the failures and successes within A.C.T.’s production of “Death in Venice.”
Giles Havergal, with the help of Robert David MacDonald, both members of the much-respected Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre, wrote the stage adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novella, “Death In Venice,” in 1999.
Since then, the piece has become Havergal’s pet project, and he has traveled the world performing the 75-minute one-man show, which included a run in off-Broadway’s Manhattan Ensemble Theatre, garnering rave reviews from the New York Post and New York Times.
Saturday night, the production enjoyed its West Coast premiere to a sold-out crowd at the Zeum Theater.
But rather than producing a bold, mind-bending evening of black-box theater, “Death in Venice” came off more like a scholarly lecture than invigorating live theater.
This observation isn’t meant to be catty, but it can’t be denied that the complexities and the theoretical nature of Mann’s novella, at least in its theatrical incarnation, were clearly lost on its audience (and the reviewer).
Too many people had nodded off, and perhaps the conclusion to be drawn is that the famous Mann is better off read than heard.
Based on an event that actually happened to the revered early 20th-century writer while vacationing in Venice, “Death in Venice” is the story of a fictional famous composer who becomes infatuated with a 14-year-old boy while on holiday.
Overwhelmed by the boy’s perfection, the writer falls deep into the throes of obsession. Meanwhile, an outbreak of cholera in Venice generates a second story line meant to add to the growing chaos, both internal and external, that overtakes this play.
The homoerotic tones are undeniable and are the very things that have made this work so controversial.
Still, while Havergal, who stars in this production as well, is an impeccable actor whose talent is undeniable, the dialogue is very dense and academic, making it very difficult to weed through the words and hit upon the emotional crux of the show.
Rich with philosophical discussion representative of the thinking of the times (social and moral decline; personal and social decadence) “Death in Venice” doesn’t shy away from hard-hitting spiritual questions and serves as an interesting footnote in history.
Nonetheless, the context in which such heady ideas and think-piece formulas can best be enjoyed seemingly does not lend itself to live theater.