Idiot: Theater review by Helen Shaw
Why do we adapt books into plays? They're such opposite creatures: one enjoyed in private, the other in public. Yet you can't swing an Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats in this town without hitting an adaptation. There's the occasional success we can point to—Fun Home and the Chernow Hamilton biography certainly worked out well—but these are exceptions, not rules. Usually a book's-worth of event and detail flusters the theater maker; the more the adapter loves the source, the more hectic the transformation becomes. HERE's version of The Idiot, Dostoevsky's psychologically complex Christian allegory, is one such; it winds up an unwieldy mess. The theatrical medium and the literary content never gel, so while Robert Lyons and Kristin Marting's attempt is noble, it—like their delicate protagonist—seems doomed from the outset.
HERE familiar space has been converted into an in-the-round Russian karaoke bar: floor covered in faux-Persian rugs and disco-light runners, mini-stages at two corners of the room, while the third includes a (non-participatory) bar. Prince Myshkin (Daniel Kublick) greets us and sends us to our seats. He sports knee breeches and silver shoes, an aristocrat with a hint of Dorothy Gale. (Kate Fry did the sumptuous costumes, and Nick Benacerraf the set.) Kublick is a giraffe in prince's clothing: he has the same hooded-yet-startled eyes and infinitely long neck, not to mention a hilarious way of moving that starts in his legs and then—much later— reaches his upper body. Dostoevsky thought of Myshkin, the titular idiot, as a pure soul, a good man whose generosity and candor made him unfit for Russian society. Kublick really seems to be that sweetly, nakedly, vulnerably dear.
Created by two longtime artistic directors—HERE's Marting directs and the New Ohio Theatre's Lyons wrote the text—Idiot avoids most of the common adaptation mistakes. It doesn't ape the length of the original (nearly 700 pages), but runs a brisk 75 minutes. It doesn't get tangled up in subplots; Lyons has stripped it down to the central love quadrangle of innocent epileptic Myshkin, his flighty amorata Aglaya (Lauren Cipoletti), the pitiable debauchee Nastasya (Purva Bedi) and misogynist berserker Rogozhin (Merlin Whitehawk).
But these solutions create their own problems. The love square doesn't make any emotional sense, since everyone seems wildly in love (and wildly angry) from the start.The novel also has careering, switchback passions, but they're couched in vast banks of detail. By extracting just the “I love you! You love him! He loves me!” bits, Lyons turns the source into a soap-operatic supercut. Marting knows the melodrama needs pepping up, so she sugars the show with Russian karaoke, vivid video design by Ray Sun Ruey-Horng and rousing Slavic dance. Again, these solutions have a cost. Dostoevsky's story hinges on social rigidity—the way a reputation can be ruined by a faux pas while graver sins are swept under the rug. In this pulsing, techno environment, there are no such barriers to bang against, and all Dostoevsky's heartbroken critique vanishes into the noise.—Helen Shaw
HERE (Off-Off Broadway). Conceived and adapted by Robert Lyons and Kristin Marting. By Lyons. Directed by Marting. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 15mins. No intermission.