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Idiot

HERE presents an unconventional staging of Dostoevsky's novel of human kindness in a fallen world.

Daniel Kublick stars in Robert Lyons' Idiot, directed by Kristin Marting, at HERE.
(© Carl Skutsch)

Those who live in dread of audience interaction have nothing to fear from Idiot at HERE. Although advertised as an immersive adaptation of Dostoevsky's novel The Idiot, the immersion is akin to steeping a bag of herbal tea in lukewarm water: Everything about this production is tepid, sedate, and leaves you wanting some caffeine. Our protagonist will greet you upon entering the space, but after that, he will mostly leave you alone, which turns out to be a blessing in this production.

Granted, it cannot be easy to condense a 600-page Russian novel into 75 minutes of stage action. The plot points, philosophical digressions, and complicated multipart names are enough to throw even the most conscientious readers. Here, audience interaction feels like an added complication to an already baroque property; although in giving a similar treatment to War and Peace, the team behind the Broadway-bound Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 have remarkably succeeded in making it all work. Playwright Robert Lyons and director Kristin Marting aren't as lucky, offering an Idiot that doesn't quite feel formed enough to be a considered a compelling work of experimental theater.

In his adaptation, Lyons focuses on the central love quadrangle of the novel: Prince Myshkin (Daniel Kublick) is a kindhearted epileptic in love with erratic socialite Nastasya Filippovna (Purva Bedi). Bourgeois macho man Parfyon Rogozhin (Merlin Whitehawk) is also in love with her and will spare no expense to win her hand in marriage. Considering the tempestuous relationship between Filippovna and Rogozhin, Myshkin would probably be better off marrying Aglaya Epanchin (Lauren Cipoletti), the daughter of a respectable family who really seems to understand him. But as a famous man once said, "The heart wants what the heart wants" (a sentiment that can easily be justified through allegedly altruistic Christian morality).

Daniel Kublick plays Prince Myshkin and Merlin Whitehawk plays Rogozhin in Idiot.
(© Carl Skutsch)

Lyons' adaptation is stiff and awkward, like a by-the-book academic translation. The actors deliver pseudo-profound lines like, "It is impossible to live in the infinite expanse of each and every moment," with insecure hesitancy, as if even they don't quite understand what they are saying. Their performance of Marting's indicative choreography is no more self-assured.

This apologizing uncertainty works for Kublick, who does a convincing job as our dweeby, Christlike protagonist. It is Whitehawk, however, who delivers the most memorable performance of the evening: Sporting a confident mane of hair, Rogozhin makes a strong first impression by embracing the Prince with a big Russian bear hug that is simultaneously warm and menacing. Cipoletti gives a one-note performance as the stern and sensible Aglaya, acting more like the Prince's therapist than his lover. Meanwhile, Bedi's Filippovna isn't so much alluring as she is messy: It's hard to understand why she is such a prize.

Taking a light hand with the acting, Marting seems to have directed most of her energy into fully realizing the design of the piece: Nick Benacerraf's set (billed here as an "environment") has the audience on the floor separated into quadrants by crisscrossing Persian rugs. The four corners of the room feature a stage with a mic, a bar, a photo booth, and the exit. The actors sashay up and down the carpet runways wearing Kate Fry's shimmering and inexpensive-looking folk costumes (the bunched-up trains on the back of the women's dresses are particularly unflattering, although Rogozhin's fur lapels are a nice detail). The incessant hum of Larry Heinemann's upbeat electronic music underscores much of the action. Taking it all in, we feel like we're witnessing a poorly attended Eurovision party at a Moscow karaoke lounge.

Merlin Whitehawk and Purva Bedi flirt on the karaoke stage in Idiot.
(© Carl Skutsch)

The actors occasionally take the stage to sing a number as Cyrillic lyrics light up on the four flat-screen TVs hanging in the center of the room. Those screens also host Ray Sun Ruey-Horng's trippy video design, which incorporates a live feed from a camera pointed at the actors (flawless video engineering by Ben Elling). Sound engineer Travis Wright lends an echo to the Prince's voice when he's having a fit, helping us to personalize the experience of a grand mal seizure.

With so many bells and whistles, this show shouldn't be as dull as it is. Unfortunately, the impressive technical elements do little to distract from a dry script and overly cautious performances. There may be a brilliant immersive experience in The Idiot, but in order to find it, Lyons and Marting might want to go back to page one.

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