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Theatre in Review: Idiot (HERE)

Lauren Cipoletti, Daniel Kublick, Purva Bedi. Photo: Carl Skutsch.

In their old nightclub act, The Revuers, Betty Comden and Adolph Green did a number called "Reader's Digest," in which they applied the condensed-books method to classic literature, summing them up in a four-line chorus. For example, Gone With the Wind: "Scarlett O'Hara's a spoiled pet/She wants everything that she can get/The one thing she can't get is Rhett/The End!" Or, perhaps more to the point of today's subject, War and Peace: "Napoleon did not beware/He attacked the Russian bear/He came home on his derrière/The End!" As the song says, "That's all you have to know/The Reader's Digest told us so."

I bring this up because Robert Lyons and Kristin Marting have applied the same technique to Dostoevsky's The Idiot, with results that are even less detailed than one of Comden and Green's quatrains. They have taken a complex, psychologically detailed, and deeply philosophical work and reduced it to a four-way lover's spat.

The four characters retained from the novel are Prince Lev Myshkin, the title character, who, having spent the better part of his life in Switzerland being treated for epilepsy, retains an almost otherworldly goodness; Aglaya Epanchin, the willful youngest daughter of a general, with whom the prince endures a complicated on-and-off relationship; Nastasya Filippovna, a former kept woman whose former lover is trying to marry her off; and Parfyon Rogozhin, a young merchant who is driven mad by his desire for Nastasya.

The characters encounter each other on the four aisles of Nick Benacerraf's set (referred to as an "environment" in the program), each of which arrives at a different terminus, including a small stage and a boxlike confessional area where they speak their minds. A quartet of video screens, facing down from the ceiling, gives us a better view of the actors when they are in the latter space. The authors have done a reasonable job of isolating the four characters' ever-shifting relationships, but, really, even with the vast supporting cast eliminated, a running time of 75 minutes -- with time taken out for musical numbers (sung in Russian) and at least one dance sequence -- gives one the barest taste of the novel, a series of events shorn of the context that makes them meaningful.

There isn't even time to give the remaining characters any shading or depth. The prince is a tough character to render under any circumstances, his history of illness leaving him socially awkward and his preternatural goodness making him a challenge to any actor. Daniel Kublick presents him as a kind of uber-nerd, given to bizarre gestures and impulsive statements, but the character's Christly inner light is not discernible. Lauren Cipoletti emphasizes Aglaya's tough, confrontational qualities so much that it's not clear why anyone might fall in love with her. Merlin Whitehawk's much better Rogozhin has an edge of pathology that points directly to the play's macabre conclusion.

Most regrettable is the rendering of Nastasya, who, even though she makes relatively few appearances in the novel, casts a long shadow across it. Driven by a deep fury at having been made a courtesan in early adolescence, she defies her lover's plans for her, committing a number of perverse acts that send ripples of scandal through polite society. She is a powerful figure, both forbidding and fascinating, and it isn't entirely Purva Bedi's fault that she is here reduced to a pouty flirt, something closer to a Real Housewife of St. Petersburg than a consequential player in the novel's grand design. For example, one of the book's most shocking scenes -- in which Nastasya burns the 100,000 rubles that Rogozhin has raised in order to obtain her hand -- carries little or no weight here.

The production is visually strong, with Benacerraf's set, covered with Oriental rugs, providing a solid ground plan on which the characters interact; there is also an effective coup de théâtre near the end, involving the reveal of an entirely new, heretofore unseen, playing area. Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew's lighting artfully shifts between warmly colored and chilling white washes. The video, by Ray Sun Ruey-Horng, blends live feeds, including an overhead shot of the characters dancing, with such images as leaves, water, and Rogozhin's eyes. No sound designer is credited, but perhaps Travis Wright, who has a "sound engineered" credit is responsible for the evocative sound effects, including trains, static (heard during one of the prince's episodes), and a ticking clock. Kate Fry's costumes are reasonable approximations for 19th-century Russian wear, but I am at a loss to explain the outfit created for Bedi, which involves a black blouse and black pants, a striped bustle/train, and an overskirt in a subtle rainbow of colors; at the least, I suppose, it provides a solid indication of the character's outsider status.

Idiot, is billed as being "a response" to the novel, whatever that may mean; it remains a strange effort, as perverse as Nastasya Filippovna itself. Its method is largely subtractive, providing to little to compensate from all that has been taken away. It provides a good illustration of the dictum that even a piece with a short running time can seem interminable if nothing seems to be happening. The book takes considerably longer to read, yet it is infinitely more rewarding. -- David Barbour


(6 May 2016)

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