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The Grand Inquisitor

Peter Brook's staging of an excerpt from Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov is a rapt and challenging experience. logo
Bruce Myers in The Grand Inquisitor
(© Geraint Lewis)
Theatre for a New Audience and New York Theatre Workshop have joined together to bring Peter Brook's The Grand Inquisitor, adapted by Marie-Helene Estienne from a chapter in the monumental Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, to the latter company's East 4th Street arena. It's not an easy 50 minutes to sit through -- and many patrons may be wise to choose not to do so -- but this monologue proves to be a rapt and challenging experience, thanks in large part to the work of Bruce Myers as a 16th-century cardinal confronting the returned Jesus (Jake M. Smith, barefoot and bearded, in a totally silent performance).

For those needing to brush up their Dostoyevsky, "The Grand Inquisitor" section of the panoramic tome is a poem that Ivan -- the rationalist of the three eponymous brothers --composes and recites to sibling Alyosha. In the gritty parable, Jesus has appeared on the streets of Seville, where he's been healing passers-by and has even resurrected a seven-year-old girl. For his benevolence, he's arrested by the cardinal and then chastised in his cell.

The cardinal's argument is that Jesus made a crucial spiritual and tactical error by insisting humanity can not live by bread alone. He maintains that men and women will always prefer bread over oppressive freedom of choice and that he and his peers, in Jesus' name, manipulate their congregations accordingly.

Elaborating on the thesis to a man whom he plans to burn at the stake the following day, the cardinal contrives to make Jesus admit his errors but not before at least expressing anger over being so convincingly exposed. Instead, Jesus --who hasn't shifted his gaze throughout the jeremiad -- stands and executes a Christ-like act of redemption that resonates with the New Testament even as it disorients the cardinal.

As befits the stark tale, Brook gives it a stark production. The space is empty, except for an approximately 10-foot square platform, a black stool, and a rectangular black cube -- a look that is reminiscent of the ones Brook gave Fragments, his Samuel Beckett compendium, and his long-ago stripped-down Carmen.

Myers' characterization of the nearly 90-year-old cardinal is most intriguing for not being what's expected. Wearing a simple black cassock, the white-haired and white-bearded actor has a soft and musical voice he raises accusatorily only a few times. As he moves his stool closer and closer to Smith's absolutely still Jesus or sometimes circles the square in quiet steps, he speaks with the measured tones of a clever prosecuting attorney making a closing statement.

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