Friday, November 21, 2008

The Brothers Karamazov/Gatz

If you had told me months ago that two of the best theatre experiences I would have thus far this season would be epic literary adaptations (of Dostoevsky and Fitzgerald, no less), I would have told you that you obviously didn't know where my tastes lie. Consider my hypothetical foot firmly in my hypothetical mouth. Last week I spent close to 11 hours in two shows within one block of each other right off Michigan Ave., and never once checked my watch.

I can't think of a more fittingly named/themed company than Lookingglass. Not to belabor the allusion, but the place truly is a wonderland, and one of their biggest strengths as a company is the ability to use the theatre and its surprises judiciously. Whereas other spectacular companies build shows up to the big gravity-defying cliche of a flying climax, Lookingglass (and in this particular case, adapter/director Heidi Stillman) moves ahead with pared down, black box, minimalism punctuated by pitch perfect head-turning moments of surprise -- little things: characters climbing ladders to nowhere, honest to god grave sites, a dog -- that in the grand scheme of things aren't all that tremendously high-tech, but wow all that much more because we didn't imagine them going into the moment.

The Brothers Karamazov is a perfectly executed example of this. I'll warn you now that I have no idea how this production compares to the novel or to Dostoevsky as a whole because (here's where I show my cultural pygmy side) I've never read any of his works. It's part of the reason I was not expecting to terribly enjoy the show -- I've always attached Russian lit. and 'boring' at the hip, perhaps unfairly, but nonetheless...

What I can tell you is that this thing blisters. Starting with the Gogol Bordello-esque (Was it Gogol, anyone? I'm not familiar enough to know.) pre-show music, part of Ray Nardelli's evocative music design, the show tilts between action a little too big for its britches and silence with tension of the high-wire variety. The reason it works so well is not because the show rides that fence, but that it regularly hops on either side. Joe Sikora's Dmitri is a little too high stakes, Philip R. Smith's Ivan a little too sarcastically smarm, and Doug Hara's Alyosha a little too unflappable, all three of which set us up perfectly for the Act Three inversion. But then, by the same token, the reenactment of the Grand Inquisitor dream and the Ivan/Alyosha philosophical discussion leading up to it were breathless -- a marvelous example of Still Theatre that maintains a tight audience grip.

And in the end, it's the little tweaks that make the whole big ol' thing worthwhile. Be it a revolving house or a ringing bell or a sparky supporting turn (Eva Barr, Lawrence Grimm, and Steve Key in particular), the whole thing adds up to three plus hours surprisingly quickly.

Nothing quite compares to seven and a half hours, though, to which my invisible hat goes off to Elevator Repair Service for transforming a reading of the Great American Novel into the Great American Reenactment. Because, as much of a maven as I am for the experimental and the avant-garde, the reason Gatz works for almost an entire workday is not the concept or the individuality. This is damn well-executed theatre right down to the meat and potatoes of it. I'm not even going to attempting the hopeless task of singling out any one particular aspect; every last inch of heart that went into every inch of this show is completely visible. If every show could uphold that level interest on the part of the performers (on and back and prestage) for even an hour and a half, we wouldn't have to worry about running anybody out of town, high noon or otherwise. When artists are able to recognize that what happens onstage can't hold a candle to the idea that it really is happening to those involved, that's when the magic happens. That's when things really are the Best of the Best, and both of these shows very much belong there.

This week it was Signal's Six Degrees Of Separation on Thursday and then opening a muthafucking DADA soiree! Thank god for short work weeks -- I'm gonna need one after this. Also, leading into the T-giving, I'm filling my plate as full as I can (get it?). Monday is Noel Williams' Party Of One, Tuesday is Blair Thomas & Co.'s The Ox-Herder's Tale and Wednesday is SITI Company's Radio Macbeth. And then a lot of eatin's. Hooray!



Ed R said...

I really enjoyed Brothers K when I saw it, with one caveat (more about that in a minute). I, too have never read the source material- my high school English teacher decided to draw the line at "Crime and Punishment." (anyone else know that old student chestnut? It goes like this:)

Q: Why is it called "Crime and Punishment?"

A: Having to read part one is a crime. Having to read the rest is the punishment!

I kid. Anyhoo- isn't Chaon Cross riveting no matter what she does? And sorry to be shallow, but Joe Sikora is cute, and whatever (either hetero female or gay male) costume designer that designed his pants was, shall we say, well aware. One finds small pleasures where one can. The Grand Inquisitor sequence was one of my favorite parts as well. Have you heard about the adaptation of just that section of the novel that was mounted in NYC? The revolving house is pretty cool, though my delight with it was tempered a bit by some dark amusement when (at the preview I was watching) the house caught on the underside of one of the balconies for a bit during one of the scene changes. The one thing that I didn't care for (and maybe they cut or at least shortened this after I saw it) was the speech by Alyosha at the grave. From my point of view it was really long. I mean REALLY long. Apparently according to wikipedia it's a crucial part of the novel. But for this audience member it was the first time I checked my watch. I guess I feel like that speech spends a lot of time belaboring a point it could have made much more quickly. Yeah, yeah, we should remember those that have gone before, and not be overwhelmed by grief and despair by the loss of those we love, but instead enjoy the present moment and the love and companionship of those around us, yada yada. See? I made the same point as that speech and didn't take ten minutes to do it! The graveside speech may make a stirring prose passage but left a lot to be desired as a dramatic moment in my opinion. But like I said, maybe they shortened it after the preview I saw it.

Other stuff I liked: the scene with the devil, and that moment at the beginning when the kids transform into their older selves. That first image of the kids staring morosely out into the night while their dad debauches with his whores was really striking. I also have to admire (and CJ gave them props for this as well and rightly so) an adaptation of a novel that somehow manages to completely avoid narration. Well, enough rambling. Sleep time.

Paul Rekk said...

I have to imagine that the final speech has been cut down from the previews, as I can't see anyone taking it to task as being watch-checkingly long. It was a bit heavy on the schmaltz factor, what with the hand-holding and the child actors (who were mostly good, but are bound to slip into 'child actor' at points), but after three hours of slight exaggeration on the down and dirty fronts, I was willing to give them the same breathing room on the aw shucks ending front, too. And after I tucked the cynic away, I discovered that hope really was a breath of much-appreciated fresh air.

I didn't give it up for Ms. Cross nearly as much as everyone else I'm seeing. She was fine, but in this production, she seemed a little 'in character' while every one else had gone to that point of emphasis. Any other show and she would have been a standout; here she was just normal, especially as she was the only one really playing at that pace. Steve Key as the disgraced captain, on the other hand, had me nailed to my seat.

I don't think I got to fully appreciate the revolving house from my seat (I completely missed out on that first transformation), but I consider it an even trade for being able to watch the Alyosha/Ivan cafe scene in Act Two up close and personal, which in its simplicity was still one of the highest points of the evening.