nytheatre.com review by Nat Cassidy
August 15, 2010
I'm a Dostoevsky nut and it always saddens me when I encounter resistance recommending his works to others. After all, once you get past the page length and the patronymics, the qualities that have always drawn me to ol' Fyodor Mikhaylovich are the ingredients, I think, we all look for in great literature: rich ideas, intriguing plots, warped characters, and, most important of all, a wicked sense of humor. Sure, he tends to go off on occasionally lengthy philosophical tangents, and one might not always agree with what his characters espouse (I often don't), but his plots could've come right out of a pulp magazine and his moral arguments are deliciously complex food for thought.
It is with great delight, then, that I say that Propinquity Productions' An Idiot nails everything I have always enjoyed about the works of Dostoevsky. Their "modern retelling" of the novel The Idiot succeeds marvelously in portraying the passionate, yearning, and often mad world Dostoevsky's work attempts to understand—Jeff Tabnick's excellent script even nails the occasionally bizarre and surreal narrative voice with which Dostoevsky tells his stories.
By "modern retelling," the show's producers mean essentially grafting onto the measured, dense, almost presentational tones of, say, a Constance Garnet translation, our own contemporary vocabulary. The staid rhythm one might expect of a 19th century Russian novel remains, but the characters are casually referencing the internet, Barack Obama, pornography, etc. The convention works, lending a cultured gravitas to our world and making what could have been an anachronistic period piece throb with resonance.
If Crime and Punishment is Dostoevsky's Macbeth and The Brothers Karamazov his King Lear, The Idiot is arguably his Hamlet: a tale of tragedy engendered by the moral dilemmas of one young man haunted by the directives of an incorporeal father (in this case, the Heavenly one). In the smallest of nutshells, Prince Myshkin has dedicated his life to pure "goodness" and is resolved to follow and spread the true tenets of Christianity: unadulterated love, kindness, and charity. On his way home to Russia after some years in a sanatorium treating his epilepsy, Myshkin befriends a young man of a distinctly diametric moral bent: the dark, self-centered Rogozhin. With Rogozhin comes the introduction of the dangerous beauty, Nastasya. And with Nastasya comes trouble . . .
Wisely whittling the sprawling story down to a handful of characters (it is a Russian novel, after all), Tabnick and director Eric Nightengale give us what is essentially a love quadrangle (pentagon, if you include Myshkin's love of Christianity) among four hungry young souls whose actions pose the question, "what good is good if it inspires badness in others?"
The cast is terrific. Jonathan Todd Ross ably portrays the titular "idiot" Myshkin as both naive and conflicted, trying desperately to manifest his moral vision in a world that simply will not have it. Philip Guerette's Rogozhin doesn't come across as devilish as he does in the source material, but he is intriguingly pitiable and an effective and realistic cad regardless. Hollis Witherspoon's Nastasya is at once pompous and fragile and Emily Hagburg's Anna manages to come across as the innocent without falling prey to stereotype, which is no small feat (and her look of desperate disbelief during one of her final scenes will absolutely break your heart). Toby Wherry's Bob magnificently treads the difficult line between incoherent ravings and a vulnerable longing to communicate. And James Jenner and Phillip Douglas complete the cast as the two eldest characters, whose portrayals suggest a romanticized view of the older generation while providing foibles ugly and honest enough to put such romance to rest. Nightengale's direction is superb, and the production comes to life on a remarkably effective minimalist set designed by Scott Aronow.
Like Dostoevsky's novels, this play might not be for everyone. There's a lot of philosophical fat some audience members might prefer was trimmed. I'm also still not sure some of the more meta-theatrical elements work or are necessary (for instance, the characters ping-pong between period costumes and modern dress; or occasionally jump into direct address to the audience; to say nothing of a moment of voiceover narration from Dostoevsky himself)—but that's mainly because the more conventional action onstage was more than enough to hold my attention and keep me interested. And that's a good spot to mention my highest praise of all: I caught the performance at 10:45pm on a Sunday night, after a long day and knowing full well I'd be paying double for it with an early morning Monday. A few minutes into the production, however, and fatigue was the furthest thing from my mind.