Regional Reviews: Los Angeles
The Brothers Karamazov
Also see Sharon's review of Nicholas Nickleby
The first scene, in which we are introduced Alyosha Karamazov, the youngest of the brothers, did little to alleviate my fears. Alyosha is a novice in a monastery, and the first scene opens on one of his lessons. His enthusiastic mind is having difficulty grasping the simplicity of a concept, and the monastery's elder tries (in that feared heavy accent) to re-imagine the lesson in a way Alyosha can master it.
But wait ... Alyosha doesn't have a heavy accent. He's just speaking in normal English. Modern English. Very nearly conversational English. And there's more. We are soon introduced to Alyosha's father, Fyodor. Actor John Getz isn't a particularly large actor, but his Fyodor emanates bigness. Fyodor is a red-faced, enthusiastic man, brimming with life. The contrast between him and the contemplative elder could not be greater. He most likely reminds you of someone you know - the big, fun guy who is everybody's friend.
Enter Dmitri, Fyodor's eldest son, a lieutenant, just returned from the army. Dmitri and Alyosha are introduced to each other (with the one in the military and the other in the monastery, the brothers are strangers). Fyodor is overjoyed to have his sons together - a third, Ivan, a writer, is also reacquainted with his brothers - and is ready to forgive any past transgressions. Dmitri asks his father for his birthright - some money left to him by his mother - because he is planning to marry ...
... and all hell breaks loose. You expect good-natured Fyodor to be overjoyed at the news, but he assumes Dmitri is engaged to some cheap whore, and says so. When Dmitri explains that, no, Katya is a wealthy philanthropist, Fyodor's manner changes to fatherly pride, as he assumes Dmitri is marrying her for her money. After all, that's what Fyodor did.
At about this point, your initial impressions have been completely discarded. Fyodor isn't a kindly, warm-hearted soul at all - he's a jerk who emotionally abuses his sons. But more importantly, The Brothers Karamazov isn't a cold, inaccessible, boring play where you strain to understand the language and the concepts - it's a straightforward, vibrant evening at the theatre, populated with real characters who have real problems and speak real dialogue.
This is not to say that there aren't deeper things going on here; don't mistake comprehensible speech for simplicity of thought. When Dmitri, who is marrying for love, is disgusted by his father's supposition otherwise, he rejects Fyodor. Fyodor, whose temper is as fiery as his son's, sets out to financially destroy Dmitri. Yet Fyodor then says, "You have stolen from me my chance to be good." Getz reads the line beautifully, and it encapsulates so much about how Fyodor views his sons, and himself. There are other lines like that in the play, stunning little moments when a single sentence resonates with such piercing self-awareness that it nearly takes your breath away.
Director John Langs gets solid performances from the entire company. Paul Witten is haunting as Dmitri, the son who is most like his father and sees this genetic predisposition as an inescapable limitation on the kind of man he can be. Makeup designer Emily McDonald accentuates the angles of Witten's face; lighting designer Brian Sidney Bembridge takes full advantage - the result is a Dmitri whose bloodshot sunken eyes speak of a man who has given up hope. Rebecca Avery does a noteworthy turn in the role of Grushenka, a woman who takes pleasure in life, yet can also use and destroy people with the ease of a Karamazov. And Doug Sutherland is memorable as Smerdyakov, an earnest servant who calls Fyodor "Father" for reasons not too hard to guess.
The play does get a bit odd at the end, when a crisis sends Ivan into a state of mind where he believes he's having discussions with the Devil. I would be dishonest if I didn't say things get a little more difficult at this point. By the end of the play, Clarvoe is no longer spoon-feeding things to his audience; he's asking you to meet Dostoevsky partway. Don't be afraid.
The Brothers Karamazov runs through January 15th at [Inside] the Ford at the Ford Amphitheatre. For tickets, see www.circlextheatre.org.
Circle X Theatre Co. presents The Brothers Karamazov, a play by Anthony Clarvoe, adapted from the novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Directed by John Langs; Produced by Tim Wright & Jennifer A. Skinner; Scenic & Lighting Design by Brian Sidney Bembridge; Sound Design by Robbin E. Broad; Costume Design by Dianne K. Graebner; Prop Design by Alexandra Hisserich; Stage Managed by Mina Yueh.
Photo by Ross Mackenzie