Friday, March 6, 2009
Scott Kanoff's transformation of Dostoyevski's novel gives us a luminous experience, a comedy of manners of the 19th century Russian aristocracy tracked and threatened by deep and pernicious evil.
The Thursday night performance was sold out. The largely undergraduate audience around the wide thrust space of the Brockett Theatre fastened on every word throughout, even though the piece runs a full three hours, including its 15-minute intermission.
Prince Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin is returning to Moscow from Switzerland, where he lived for years in a neurological institute because of epileptic seizures. He is ragged and apparently penniless. In the train he is accosted by Lebedev, a smarmy hustler, and by a stocky, boastful merchant named Rogozhin. Rogozhin has inherited a fortune, but only by a mean stroke of luck -- he was physically struggling with his irate father over the father's threat to disinherit him, when the old man dropped dead of a stroke. Myshkin is a complete innocent. Depraved Rogozhin, his foil, boasts of his passion for the beautiful Nastasya -- who lives in grand style because she is blackmailing her guardian for the years he spent abusing her as a young girl.
Prince Myshkin has no surviving close family, no profession, little knowledge, no social polish, and talent only as a calligrapher -- and as a truth teller. He calls upon General Yepanchin, whose wife, also a Myshkin, is a distant cousin. Despite his early gaucheries, Myshkin inadvertently charms Lizaveta Yepanchin and her two daughters. He is gradually drawn in, both into the social round of the ladies, and into the General's design to bribe his own penniless private secretary Ganya Ivolgin to contract a marriage of convenience with Nastasya, the very blackmailer discussed on Myshkin's train trip home to Moscow.
Director/adapter Kanoff ably renders Dostoyevski's world, one in which shining social artifice is accompanied by the foul muck of bribery, exploitation and pain. Myshkin's incomprehension of evil and of selfishness draw the desperate to him -- the crude, passionate merchant Rogozhin, who insists on exchanging with him the crosses they wear about their necks; the emotive, spoiled Aglaya Yepanchin, the general's elder daughter who uses the emotional equivalent of blackmail to stalk Myshkin for a husband; the menials Lebedev and Ganya Ivolgin, each bent on exploiting Myshkin when he unexpectedly comes into a fortune. And especially, the beautiful blackmailer Nastasya -- whose inner misery hypnotizes Myshkin
There's a lot going on in this piece, which is hardly surprising, considering that it is drawn from a 656-page novel. Karnoff abstracts the essential and tucks it neatly into a theatrical format. His work is made easier by the luminiscent acting of Tom Truss as Myshkin (above). Truss shows us a man who is simple yet exceedingly complex -- a man whose emotions war openly in his face. Many things are happening simultaneously in Truss's performance: self-abnegation, an acute sensitivity to each of the other characters, shambling efforts to conform to the cutting standards of his new acquaintances, simple direct observations and an affecting and other-worldly openness to the poor and the needy. We see every turn of his heart. This is masterful, captivating acting.
Several other performances need to be signalled and especially praised. Harrison Butler as Ganya the sharp-spoken private secretary is caught in an impasse between avarice and dignity; his tottering choice of honor is unexpected and electrifying. Lesley Gurule as Myshkin's cousin Lizaveta (right) is all the matriarch and delivers a crisp performance with much droll self-certainty.
As her headstrong daughter Aglaya (left, with Tom Truss), Kate deBuys is a delight and a spoiled horror all at the same time, effective both as a comedienne and as a distraught, jilted would-be fiancée.
Pierce Purselley, as obsequious and insincere as Uriah Heep, has fine and amusing command of body, face, and mannerisms. La Tasha Stephens shines in two minor roles, as Ganya's humble and humiliated mother and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, as the elaborately social Princess Belekonsky.
Constituting the ultimately fatal love triangle with Prince Myshkin are Smaranda Ciceu as Nastasya the blackmailer and fallen woman, and Michael Sullivan as the brutish Rogozhin. They are decisive in their performances but they come nowhere near Tubbs' subtility. Ciceu is particularly declamatory, without great nuance; Sullivan improves through the course of the piece, but not until the final, terrible scene does he fully assume the fallible face of evil.
As for the sets, costunes and lighting -- how about them Horns? With the vast resources of a 125-person crew list, there's no surprise that each of these elements is highly accomplished. The players had far more set than they needed -- two stories of silhouetted mansion with three staircases, so at times the director had to send someone sauntering that way to justify all that craft. Costumes were fine for the ladies and for Myshkin -- Nastasya's cocky little hat atop a high pile of hair was very dandyish, and Myshkin's tattered old striped wrap said everything one needed to know about his parlous economc circumstances. The echo-reverb effects leading to Myshkin's epileptic spells were perhaps a bit intrusive; the lighting was generally subtle and carefully punched up for highly dramatic moments.
The University of Texas produces theatre of high quality at very reasonable prices, most of which is blissfully consumed by the UT community. The spectator community of wider Austin might respond more strongly if these treasures were more widely publicized.