- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 3, 2001

Friedrich von Schiller — along with that whoops-a-daisy writer Johann Wolfgang Goethe — were leaders in the Sturm und Drang movement of the 18th century, which means storm and stress.

Sturm und Drang works emphasized freedom, political idealism, excess of sensitivity and the struggle of an individual against conventional society. Schiller's play "Don Carlos" offers storm and stress in marvelous abundance.

Under the direction of Michael Kahn, the production is a tempest in an exquisite teacup — with thunder aplenty of the theatrical kind. Mr. Kahn keeps the three-hour-plus play moving with lightning speed, so much so audience members barely have time to compose themselves before the next galvanizing onslaught.

To see a production that is extravagantly theatrical is deeply satisfying. Chris Parry's lighting pours down on the actors like boiled lead. The costumes by Robert Perdziola mine the striking effect of a jet-black, ivory and gold palette (with small slashes of scarlet here and there) so superbly that the first entrance of the Queen's court elicits gasps from the audience.

Ming Cho Lee's set is a paranoiac's delight, a cleanly elegant gray space lined with more antechambers than a hornet's nest. Panels glide back and forth to create private rooms and empty corridors, perfect for spying on supposedly unobserved conversations.

Ted van Griethuysen leads a towering cast. The actors leave their minimalist mannerisms behind to contribute the kind of dramatic performances in which the men whip their capes with vampiric menace and the women mean business in the crisp manipulations of their stiff skirts, which rustle like bat wings. If somebody had a mustache, he would twirl it. It is that kind of play.

No sense concerning yourself with pared-down elegance in a play that ends with a spectacularly wizened and blind Grand Inquisitor (played with decayed panache by Emery Battis) tap-tapping across the stage in a flood of crimson light, flanked by his black-robed minions. They are the inversion of a classical deus ex machina: The Inquisitor and his torturers parade into the court of Philip II of Spain not to set things right, but to do the dirty deeds the king cannot bear to do himself.

Not that Philip is a weakling. Indeed, as acutely played by Mr. Van Griethuysen, he is a commanding and regal presence, a bold decision-maker who is as indifferent as nature to how human beings react to his actions. You would not want to get on his wrong side — thus the constant conniving of his men, the Duke of Alba (Ralph Cosham), Domingo (Floyd King) and Count Lerma (Edward Gero) to curry his favor.

The king's son, Don Carlos (Robert Sella), apparently never will get into his father's inner circle. Perpetually on the verge of tears, adolescent in his rash responses and with limb and hands quaking, Carlos is not Philip's idea of a future king. Not to mention that Carlos is crazy in love with his stepmother, Elizabeth of Valois (Enid Graham), to whom he was betrothed before Philip took her for himself.

Mr. Sella's performance is so delicately attuned that his character's hopelessly extended youth doesn't annoy. His Carlos is a roiling mass of potential, showing glimpses of keen intelligence, passion and idealism in between his Hamlet-like commiserating over his father's neglect, his mother's death in childbirth and his fiancee's marriage to his dad.

Elizabeth, played with radiant nobility by Miss Graham, sees the potential in Carlos and tries to push him into manhood by fueling his idealism. She encourages him to join a plot hatched by the valiant Marquis of Posa (Andrew Long) to capture the Netherlands for Spain without resorting to the carnage for which Philip and the Duke of Alba are famous.

Yet Carlos comes to maturity too late. "Don Carlos" on the surface is about Carlos' tragic love for Elizabeth, but Mr. Kahn's far-reaching vision of the play takes it into grander realms than the love that cannot be. Quasi-incestuous passion may give the play a carnal heat, but Schiller's writing burns with a much purer flame. Many of the most fiery and eloquent speeches have to do with the pursuit of liberty and how religion and oppressive government are the biggest enemies of freedom.

Mr. Kahn's production is mighty in its interplay between the big and small moments. Despite all the pageantry, most of the scenes are intimate conversations among two or three people. Religion, in the form of the Grand Inquisitor, and oppressive government, personified by Philip's iron-fisted rule, threaten the glory of Spain. Yet what "Don Carlos" so magnificently reveals is that the same factors can rot a court and ruin a family. The poison spreads from there.{*}{*}{*}1/2WHAT: "Don Carlos"WHERE: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NWWHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday (except March 11); 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; and noon March 7. Through March 11TICKETS: $14.25 to $62PHONE: 202/547-1122

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