There are myriad approaches to storytelling in fiction; some would seem to fit within the flexible confines of story theater and some wouldn't. Dostoevsky's dense tale of three brothers wrestling with the existence of God might strike many people as a daunting prospect for theatricalization -- especially after Richard Brooks's bland 1958 movie version, which starred Yul Brynner, Claire Bloom, Maria Schell, and William Shatner (long before he was Captain Kirk). What do you do about the novel's weighty philosophizing, its succession of deliberations on religion, and so on?
The idea of grappling with these challenges might stop anyone in his tracks but, evidently, not Alexander Harrington, who adapted and then staged the first part of his ambitious undertaking for the Eleventh Hour Theatre Co. at the Culture Project last February and has now hauled The Brothers Karamazov, Part II to the far more capacious La MaMa Annex. In a request for contributions posted on the Internet, Harrington describes his work as 7½ hours long -- 3¾ hours each part. But, unless I somehow mistimed it, the second half actually runs more than four hours.
I bring up that vital statistic because, even while encouraging intrepid theatergoers to see what Harrington has wrought, I feel honor-bound to let them know just how intrepid they need to be. During the performance I attended, the number of audience members who left at intermission and even during the show's three acts of 38 scenes was high -- but not, I hasten to speculate, because of the production's deficiencies (though there are some). No, Harrington's lengthy piece simply requires the kind of stamina needed to follow a complex plot, to comprehend the ins and outs of circuitous philosophical arguments, and to get through the production's more than occasional longueurs.
Since BK, Pt. II is preceded by a 10-minute recounting of BK, Pt. I, patrons who don't know what's happened -- or who have forgotten because, like me, they trudged through Dostoevsky's brilliant work some time ago -- are quickly brought up to speed. The three brothers Dimitry (J. Anthony Crane), Ivan (Stafford Clark-Price), and Alexei (Christopher Pollard Meyer), sometimes called Alyosha, are differently involved in the disposition of 3,000 rubles being used to buy the attentions and, perhaps, the heart of the alluring money-lender Grushenka (Sorrel Tomlinson). Although Dimitry is married to the seemingly patient Katerina (Danielle Langlois), he is vying with his miserly father, Fyodor (Gary Andrews) for Grushenka's favors, while Ivan may have developed eyes for Katerina. Alyosha, the spiritual brother, has his eye on a God he knows is real, whereas the essayist Ivan has proclaimed in print that if God is dead, everything is permitted -- this at a time when the writings of Nicholay Gogol and Friedrich Nietzsche were circulating. Dimitry is in the middle of the metaphorical theological dispute they represent.
When the action picks up in the second half, Dimitry still has Grushenka on his mind -- so much so that he considers killing his father for those 3,000 rubles and is arrested for murder when his father checks out under the violent circumstances of a crushed skull. Although Harrington includes a couple of subplots -- the most notable of them featuring the dying, young Ilyusha (Winslow Mohr) and his aggrieved family -- he hews closely to how the Karamazov brothers relate or don't relate to one another before and during Dimitry's trial. While Dimitry maintains his innocence in the face of incriminating evidence, Ivan believes that he's the guilty party and that he somehow colluded in his father's death with the old man's retainer and possible bastard son, Smerdyakov (Jim Iseman III), who happens to have his finger figuratively and literally on many of the family's secrets.
That's the basic saga. Notice how, stripped of Dostoevsky's muscular prose, it sounds as if it could be the raw stuff of not only supernal literature but also melodrama and/or soap opera. Handling it on the spacious La MaMa Annex floor -- where production designer Tony Penna has created shifting playing areas that are sensitively lit, though no lighting designer is credited -- Harrington does provide a dash of great literature, a soupçon of melodrama, and a dollop of soap opera.
There are times when the cast members, wearing Rebecca J. Bernstein's muted costumes (one outfit per character), seem to have been directed with care and other times when they seem to have been allowed or encouraged to overact or underact. Theatergoers who've weathered the first act and are thinking of slipping away before the second and third should be aware that they'll miss the most riveting segments if they do so. Alyosha's visit to Dimitry's prison cell is one example; Ivan's declaration to Alyosha of his implication in his father's death is another; Smerdyakov's admission to Ivan of his participation in Fyodor's death is another; and the trial scene, wherein prosecutor Fetyukovich (J.M. McDonnough) and defense attorney Doctor (Yaakov Sullivan) lock horns, is yet another. Each of these sequences has the crackling fire of solid drama.
Their success is due in so small part to the playing by J. Anthony Crane, Stafford Clark-Price, and Christopher Pollard Meyer as the spiritually tossed and tormented Karamazov siblings. There's no underestimating the effectiveness of the three actors' resemblance to one another; they unquestionably look like brothers and all seem to have the same ominous clouds passing over their handsome faces. Particularly in the first act, there are moments when Crane's Dimitry is showily histrionic; perhaps he believes that 19th-century Russians behaved thus. But when exchanging heartfelt dialogue with Clark-Price as the guilt-ridden Ivan or with Meyer as angelic Alyosha, Crane is a man of lambent moods. All three actors shine and so does Iseman, who, in the role of their likely half-brother, doesn't look like any of them. Rather, as Smerdyakov, he has the appearance of a faux-naif hiding black secrets under his ginger hair.
Among the rest of the cast -- many of them doing double and triple duty -- Sullivan and McDonnough are stalwart. So is the kinetic Anthony Cataldo as the politically precocious 13-year-old Kolya. Less compelling are Sorrel Tomlinson as Grushenka and Danielle Langlois as Katerina; the former gets the brittle money-lender side of her character but misses the feminine mystique, while the latter doesn't scratch much beneath the surface of a well-meaning, wronged woman. All of them are aided by Tamara Volskaya and Anatoly Trofimov, who provide mood-enhancing mandolin and accordion accompaniment from a lofty perch.
Alexander Harrington's Brothers Karamazov, Part II may not be Fyodor Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov, but it sure packs more of a wallop than Cliffs Notes on the original.