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The Grand Inquisitor

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Bruce Myers
Photo by Geraint Lewis.

The Grand Inquisitor, the C.I.C.T./Théatre des Bouffes du Nord piece that Theatre for a New Audience and New York Theatre Workshop are coproducing at the latter's East Village mainstage, is obviously a frugal producer's dream. But it has so many strikes against it at the outset for the average audience member, on paper the project looks like one big scribble.

Marie-Hélène Estienne adapted it from one section of the Fyodor Dostoyevsky novel The Brothers Karamazov, not exactly popular reading. Its running time is a scant 55 minutes. The set consists of but a single platform, barely raised off the floor, and one undistinguished chair. There are only two people in its cast - both men, neither of whom (Bruce Myers and Jake M. Smith) you've probably heard of - and only one of them speaks.

You can't push much further, though, until your objections run out: The impact of the next element counteracts those that came before. That would be the production's director, Peter Brook, who here, as in many of his other works, has a knack for making an idea too small for a closet feel too big for a stage.

He expands Dostoyevsky's parable about Jesus Christ's return to Earth during the Spanish Inquisition to full proscenium width by underscoring every conceivable instant of ritual. When the actors enter or leave the stage, they do so in a methodical, stone-faced regimen. Jesus (Smith) sits, frozen and facing upstage, for most of the play, as if he too is paying unwilling reverence to a holy force. When the Inquisitor (Myers) challenges him, he does so as much with that chair as with his words, dragging it now and then a few feet closer as though following a process outlined in a well-worn torture manual.

This effusive sense of methodology could not be more proper for a work about one of history's great instances of the absolute corruption of absolute power. Of course, in The Brothers Karamazov, the scene serves a very different purpose and thus can't be taken at face value. But it works well, too, as a standalone, since hypocrisy has never been a subject confined solely to books. The organization thriving on instilling despair and fear but passing it off as hope and enlightenment is here the Church, but it could as easily be an organization with a corrupt leadership, a political campaign, or even a full government.

Brook and Estienne leave every option open, and thus impress without insulting and move without mawkishness. Even their choice of actors was keen. While any actor could probably play the wordless Jesus, Smith stares with a firebeam intensity that mixes exactly the love and loathing you'd expect of Jesus on trial; his every motion, however small, is packed with meaning. Myers is as avuncular as he is devious, his Inquisitor is an elderly demon with a close-cut beard and a bewitching smile who's stolen your soul before you even know it's missing.

In other words, he's an ideal representative of the Church that was more or less the same thing. But he and Brook don't confine the sin to the stage. As the Inquisitor torments Jesus, he'll occasionally turn his head to the audience or even walk downstage to speak directly, thus implicating you in his plot to make the Church more his plaything than the vehicle for change its creator envisioned.

He's all but challenging you on that old saying that evil can flourish when good people do nothing - for that's exactly how he got where he is, and how he hopes to remain. The Grand Inquisitor theorizes, however, that even such deeply rooted cancers can be removed with the proper treatment: All is not lost, even when those in charge would have you believe nothing else. That makes this show, so seemingly insubstantial, one of the most inspiring and uplifting offerings currently to be seen in New York.

The Grand Inquisitor
Through November 30
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue and Bowery
Running Time: 55 minutes, with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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