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|Editor's Note: The advance information on this production of The Idiot sounded most intriguing -- a director with noteworthy credentials, an adaptation that promised to bring modernity and new revelance to this classic story about an epipleptic too saintly for this world. What I found was distinctly lacking in any spark of contemporary flavor, but a singularly old-fashioned and tediously long drama. Worse still, the performances struck me as ranging from ludicrous to inept, with the star, the worst offender. While there were two intermissions at which I could have escaped, I stayed the course for the whole three hours. Anyone who's followed my reviews knows that it's rare that I can't find a few redeeming features even in a bad production, but this adaptation. (The program gives no credit for the adaptation though one assumes it was the director who in a moment of prescience realized that he might be better off not laying claim to what he's wrought here.)
Rather than to go into a review-length negative rant, I decided that these hard-working actors deserved a second opionion. Fortunately, David Lipfert was willing to attend a performance. I'm glad he did, since he did find more to like than I did. For those interested in Dostoyevsky's classic but who would rather not invest three hours of their time or $45 (three times more than is usual when this venue is not acting as landlord to another company) I would recommend the abridged
read Martin Sheen currently giving holding his own on Broadway in the revival of Amadeus. E.S.
New York Art Theatre's new production of The Idiot at Theater for the New City is a brave attempt to compress Fyodor Dostoyevsky's unusual novel full of rich characterization into a stage-worthy edition. In this director Anatole Fourmantchouk is partially successful, but ultimately it is the casting that undoes his adaptation. Coming to America after working extensively in Europe and his native Russia, Fourmantchouk has stated that he aims to propose classics with a modern feel so that audiences can better relate to characters and situations. To this end, he has changed the characters' names from those in the novel, but this may simply have been out of respect for Dostoyevsky. Otherwise there is no distortion of the plot or setting. This approach is different from the typical American director's adaptation, which updates all the elements of a production but often does not resolve the resulting inconsistencies.
There have been periodic stagings of The Idiot , but the legendary production at the Leningrad Gorky Theater now known as BDT approximately forty years ago towers above them all. Georgi Tovstonogov was the director and Innokenty Smoktunowsky played the title character. While the intensity the actors achieved in performance created a startling impact, this production was important because it marked the first time the Christ figure (in the guise of Dostoyevsky's Prince) appeared onstage during Soviet times. Documentation includes some photos and also an audio record, while Smoktunowsky appeared in a series of Russian films, notably Uncle Vanya
To avoid confusion in the following plot summary, only the characters' names in the current production will be mentioned. The opening scene finds young Prince Leo Nicholas Micy returning from convalescence in Switzerland to recover from his epilepsy. (The latter two facts are a Dostoyevsky self-reference.) In the first of many fortuitous coincidences, he meets his future rival in the dissolute Mattinger as busybody lawyer Swany supplies useful background information for Micy's reentry to the unnamed Russian town. The Prince asks General Lord for assistance but attracts greater attention from both his wife Liz, to whom he is distantly related, and their impertinent daughter Aglaya. Lord arranges for Micy to board at his secretary Gabriel's house. (Unfortunately in this production it lands him smack in the middle of a family of Method actors better suited to light comedy.) Soon the link among all the men appears--the sullied but assertive Nastassya Lamb. Promised in marriage to Gabriel, lusted after by Mattinger and entranced by the Prince, she explores all these possibilities simultaneously. Micy's detachment propels her to the violent Mattinger, who kills her.
Even though Fourmantchouk has rigorously reduced Dostoyevsky's expansive novel, there is still a lot of plot left. It is gratifying that the spiritual/religious undercurrent that is central to the story is forthrightly handled. With a current running time of three hours, though, some tightening is in order. He lingers too much in the Prince's scenes instead of developing more efficient ways to communicate that character's essence. He might also further reduce the three Orioles' presence, particularly given the current casting. On the plus side are the quick scene changes engineered simply by the Lord major domo's pulling a heavy mass of white drapery from one side of the platform stage to the other. Natalie Rudyuk's dilapidated iconostasis/proscenium makes a suggestive frame for the action, and her lighting setup (the tech aspect seemed still unsettled at this performance), costumes in line with Dostoyevsky's descriptions and the uncredited sound design also contributed to the mood.
The principal disappointment is the casting. Although Fourmantchouk's adaptation provides meaty speeches, sustaining them
on the part of the actors is another matter. Best in this regard are the Lords, Ruth Kulerman and Michael Graves. The more complex Mattinger (James Rutigliano) comes off well, but Alexis Raben will need more time to avoid allowing Nastassya with all her incongruities from occasionally turning into a mere sex kitten. As her sometime nemesis, Sandra Trullinger is less successful in projecting Aglaya's motivations. The Orioles, father Marcus Powell, elder son Christopher Cartmill and younger one Cory Walter mostly play their parts for laughs; they predictably get a few from some in the audience. Bill Green (lawyer Swany) and David Greenwood (assistant to General Lord and narrator) round out the cast.
This leaves the title character, Prince Leo Nicholas Micy, the Christ-like figure that polarizes everyone around him. With mask-like whitened face and halting delivery, Stass Klassen has captured aspects of his character without sufficiently radiating the spirituality that mesmerizes the others. His best moment is the least introspective one: Micy addresses the haute-bourgeoisie in attendance at a Lord soiree but his innocent honesty becomes impolite candor. The scene, directed at the audience, ends with Klassen doing a quick backflip before entering into epileptic fit. Perhaps Fourmantchouk needs to treat the Prince with less reverence to excise the inertia surrounding Dostoyevsky's most personal character realization.
a new play after Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Directed by Anatole Fourmantchouk
Stass Klassen and with Christopher Cartmill, Bill Green, David Greenwood, Ruth Kulerman, Michael Graves, Alexis Raben, James Rutigliano, Marcus Powell ,Sandra Trullinger, Cory Walter
Sets, costumes and lighting design:
Running time: 3 hours with 2 intermissions
Theatre for the New City, 155 First Av. (at 10th St.), 684-8298
Performances from December 28; closing 3/25/01
Reviewed by David Lipfert based on January 9th performance