Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Brothers Karamazov

photo by Frank Atura
O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Ignoring the glorious sun and sand, I spent one family vacation on Saint George Island cooped up inside a beach cottage reading big novels: Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, John Barth’s Giles Goat Boy, and Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, etc. Out on the sunny beach, my sister caught a Whiting and hollered with delight; inside the gloomy house, I crammed my head with literature. As to Karamazov, I made it at least as far as the Grand Inquisitor passage, though I don’t remember what happened after that. Fortunately, Roland Reed adapted the novel as a play; FSU/Asolo Conservatory just put it on stage. Finally, I know how the book ends.

Director Andrei Malaev-Babel holds the reins. It's a wild ride -- a disorienting, hallucinatory assault. (I mean that in a good way.) It's also no mean feat. Dostoevsky crammed most of human life in the pages of his original novel. This production crams the bones of his novel in a three-hour performance. Not too shabby.

There are three messed-up brothers and one lousy father. In Russian tradition, they all have several names, depending on context, so you have to pay attention. But family dynamics ain't the point. It's all about ideas. Lots of them. The kind tormented 16-years-olds obsess about.

If you hate ideas, don't see this play. It's a philosophical novel; the play is faithful to it. (I have a few quibbles, but Reed did a damn good job.) In Cliff Notes terms, the story is a study of good and evil. Dostoevsky, it seems to me, draws from the same dark well as Nietzche. Ivan (Jesse Dornan), the disaffected, intellectual Karamazov brother, says something to the effect, “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” The possibility terrifies him. So, leaving the question of truth on the table, religion is a great form of crowd control. Don’t kill children or practice cannibalism or you’ll burn in hell. Good to know. If not, why not? This slowly drives Ivan mad.

Minus the philosophy, the bare-bones story has a lurid, Jerry Springer quality. It's the study of dysfunctional family. Dirty dad fighting with one of his sons over the same woman.

Fyodor (Francisco Rodriguez) the father, in question, is a corrupt, lusty, son-of-a-bitch. He’s rotten. He’s a blowhard. Like Richard III and Alex in A Clockwork Orange, he’s the most interesting character in the story.

Dirty dad competes for the affections of Grushenka (Kelly Campbell) with his son Dmitri (Brendan Ragan), the ex-military brother. Alyosha, a repressed monk, tries to make peace in the family. But there is no peace.

There's more to it than that. There's a troika of minor characters; the subplots have subplots. I won't attempt a plot summary. It'd be like, well, summarizing a Russian novel. Let's not. I won't spoil the ending, but it all ends badly. Excellent performances. (More to come, as I have time.)

Malaev-Babel's direction is original and gutsy. He feints and throws you off balance like a good prize fighter. Characters bump into furniture and push it back into place -- or wander off the stage entirely. The staging implies the characters aren't at home in this world, don't quite fit in our reality. Beyond that, Malaev-Babel turns the collective consciousness of the village into a Greek chorus, offering commentary and judgement on the main action. Nice touch. There's also a weird, prophetic echo of the Soviet Union in the costume choices. This pays off when Dimitri shares his vision of a line of starving women and a dying child, begging for bread outside their burned-out homes in the snow. It could be a scene from the Nazi invasion of Russia or one of Stalin's purges. In a final vision, Dmitri strives for the light, despite the darkness. (There were tears in my eyes; and in the eyes of the actors at the curtain call.)

Dostoevsky saw the darkness coming. He saw Hitler, Stalin and Charlie Manson coming. But he decided to keep going.

The hint of light beyond the darkness was enough.

The Brothers Karamazov
Through Nov. 20
An FSU / Asolo Conservatory production
FSU Center for the Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

Quibbles below jump ...