Saturday, January 21, 2012

PuSh 2012 Review #3: The Idiot at Freddy Wood

The creative team behind Crime and Punishment, the award-winning theatrical adaptation of the Dostoyevsky novel that played the 2005 PuSh Festival, is back with another large-scale interpretation of one of the Russian writer's novels. Commissioned by Neworld Theatre in conjunction with PuSh (through the Arts Partners in Creative Development program), and in partnership with Vancouver Moving Theatre, Theatre at UBC, and the Playwrights Theatre Centre, the play premiered last night at the Frederic Wood Theatre, where it runs until January 29th. Once again the incredibly talented James Fagan Tait has taken on the monumental task of condensing a 1000-page novel of immense scope and complexity for the stage, as well as directing a cast that numbers 19. It no doubt helps that several in the cast were also in Crime and Punishment, and that music composer and director Joelysa Pankanea is also back on board. Joined by Mark Haney on bass and Molly MacKinnon on violin, Pankanea plays the marimba live on stage over the course of the evening's many scenes, her jazz-infused score the perfect accompaniment to the many instances of sung recitative in the play. Yes, this is in part a musical adaptation of Dostoyevsky--and it works.

The Idiot focuses on Prince Lyov Nikolayevich Myshkin (Kevin MacDonald), who is returning to Russia after four years convalescing in Switzerland, and almost cured of his youthful epileptic "fits." On a train bound for St. Petersburg he meets two men, Lebedev (Tom Pickett) and the rake Rogozhin (Andrew McNee), who shows him a picture of the beautiful woman with whom he is obsessed: Nastasya Filippovna Barashkov (Cherise Clarke). Myshkin is himself immediately smitten: with both Rogozhin and Nastasya. But Nastasya is damaged goods, having been kept for much of her life by the older businessman Totsky (Luke Day), who now tired of her, has entered into a deal with the general Yepanchin (David Adams) to have Yepanchin's young assistant, Ganya (Craig Erickson), marry her in exchange for 700 rubles, thus ensuring that Yepanchin has easy access to Nastasya's bed. Meanwhile, Yepanchin's wife (Patti Allan) turns out to be a cousin of the Prince's, who after meeting her three daughters becomes enraptured with the youngest, Aglaya (Adrienne Wong). But Aglaya is also beloved by Ganya, whom she keeps toying with, and whose impecunity and embarrassment about his alcoholic and kleptomaniacal father, Ivolgin (Richard Newman), seriously tempts him to take the marriage deal with Nastasya instead. Got all that?

Dostoevksy is obsessed with doubles in this novel, and in his entire oeuvre more generally. At the centre is the contrast between the essential and unprepossessing goodness of Myshkin and the calculated guile of Rogozhin. But Nastasya and Aglaya are also paired, although in ways that are more complicated. Externally, Nastasya is compromised and sexually available, while Aglaya is pure innocence. But, inside Nastasya remains loyal to Myshkin (even though she dies at the hand of Rogozhin) while Aglaya is rather promiscuous in her affections. Similarly, the two patriarchs, Yepanchin and Ivolgin, are meant to be contrasted, with the former's outward moral rectitude masking his secret lechery, and with the latter's present fallen state unable to cancel out completely memories of a more glorious past, including as Napoleon's page. It is a credit to all of the actors, and to Tait's canny direction, that these novelistic nuances in character are given definite shape and substance in performance. At the centre of this constellation of types, whose motives and means keep shifting in relation to each other, is the Prince, the only person who remains pure and true of heart from beginning to end. Myshkin, despite the idiocy attributed to him as a result of his epilepsy, is neither simple nor guileless, and it is one of the great strengths of MacDonald's remarkable performance that he is able to convey both the generous depths of Myshkin's empathy for others and the extent to which he is also subject to his own divided conflicts and appetites.

That much of this conflict is conveyed through humour surprised me. Granted, Dostoevsky's novel is a mix of comedy and social commentary, especially at the beginning. But there are moments in this production that are downright slapstick, and Tait's updating of the language, especially with respect to the liberal oaths and epithets unleashed by nearly all of the characters, keeps the audience cackling. This is a good strategy in a production that runs 3 1/2 hours long. And while Tait has done a remarkable job in distilling both the novel's complicated plot and its grand themes, I do think there is room to trim another half hour, especially in the second act scenes at the summer spa town of Pavlovsk. For example, I don't think the scene where Burdovsky (Alexander Keurvorst) and Keller (Stephen Lytton) attempt to shake Myshkin down for money is needed; the Prince's goodness and social equanimity has already been indisputably established. To be sure, in a novel as rich as this one in scenes of social commentary and contrast, it can be hard to know where to cut, especially if you want to give each member of your large ensemble a brief moment in the spotlight.

That said, I was never less than gripped last night, and in ways that I haven't always been with the work of Catalyst Theatre, for example, who have also adapted classic works of literature (by Poe and Mary Shelley) for the stage--including the PuSh Festival stage--in a mix of sung/spoken narrative exposition and dramatization. I think Tait and his collaborators find a better balance between these two forms of presentation, wisely leaving most of the narration to the musical bits and letting the actual encounters between the characters on stage organically take shape in terms of those classic staples of good theatrical drama: rich dialogue and physical blocking and movement. On the latter front, one of the things I was most taken with in this staging was the canny spatial uses to which the large cast was put, creating various tableaux and massings that not only obviate the need for elaborate sets (as with the three stunning train rides that are evoked at various points) but also help materially represent the social maw Myshkin's virtue is at once separate from and will eventually be stripped by.

There is no doubt that this production of The Idiot requires a significant investment on the part of its audience: not of money, to be sure (it's cheap by half in that regard); rather it requires an investment of time and energy, of both affective and intellectual engagement. But what you put in will be rewarded many times over. This is a production, like the novel upon which it is based, that is overflowing with ideas, with richly drawn characters and social situations, with theatrical conceits and choric commentary. It is not to be missed.


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