It's a welcome event to have a brand new not-for-profit equity theater open in Manhattan. Since many theater producers are having trouble finding performance space, the inception of a new off-Broadway company, Manhattan Ensemble Theater (M.E.T.), at their own comfortable theater in SoHo is wonderful. Through the determination (and aggressive fund raising) of David Fishelson, formerly the director of the Jean Cocteau Rep, M.E.T. is now presenting its first production: an ambitious, stylish adaptation of Dostoyevsky's masterpiece The Idiot.
High production values, to which Richard Hoover's marvelous set designs attest, make for a play of significant visual interest. As we move from train, to upper class home, to garden and, eventually, to hovel the feeling of mid-nineteenth century Russia permeates the stage. The fully realized period costumes, designed by Susan Spetaert, are both gorgeous and plentiful (there seems to be a costume change for most characters in every scene). However, an engrossing play must be coupled with the sets and costumes in order to capture the audiences' imagination and attention. Sporadically, interesting scenes are sprinkled through this interminable three-act production (which lasted over three hours), but Mr. Fishelson's adaptation of The Idiot does not make for an absorbing evening of theater.
Most extraordinary works of fiction, like the novel The Idiot, have complicated story lines that pull the reader toward the author's main themes and complex ideas. Dostoyevsky was particularly interested in examining the religious, economic and sexual problems of his times. Prince Myshkin, the Christ like figure of the play's title, recently released from a mental institution, is on his way to meet his only living relative, a distant cousin who is living in wealthy surroundings. This journey takes him smack into all the destructive elements of Russian upper-class society. His interactions with the greedy, self-interested, intemperate, destroying and self-destructive people he meets leads to his eventual ruin. Fitting all these characters and sub plots into a play is a very hard task, and to keep it interesting requires a touch of genius. In Mr. Fishelson's version the story line was there, but character development was not. Stan suggested it was like a "Cliff Notes" version of the book. We got the main speeches and the gist of the novel, but we never became involved with the characters. This being the case, it was exceedingly difficult to care about what was happening on stage.
With sincere and earnest dedication the actors and director (also David Fishelson) tried to breathe life into this play. However, with rare exception, the scenes dragged along at a plodding pace. By the 10:30 PM start of act three, a significant number of audience members had gone packing. John Lenartz's passionate heart felt portrayal of Prince Myshkin was probably the main reason for staying until the end of the production. His performance brought a glimmer of interest into a very boring evening of theater.
The M.E.T's director, David Fishelson, has the proposed mission of dramatizing prose classics. Based on the success of Broadway productions of Nicholas Nickleby, Grapes of Wrath, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and Jane Eyre he plans to adapt other great works of fiction for the stage. Hopefully, he will have greater success with their upcoming stagings than he's had with his present production of The Idiot.