from Moscow Performances: The New Russian Theater 1991-1996
John Freedman

There is just about everything in the Sovremennik Theater's new adaptation of Dostoyevsky, The Karamazovs and Hell, to guarantee success.

It was directed by Valery Fokin, who in the last few years has reasserted himself as one of Moscow's top talents. As in his spectacular productions of A Hotel Room in the Town of N and The Metamorphosis, Fokin once again collaborated with Aleksandr Bakshi, a striking, unorthodox composer. Performing the lead of Ivan Karamazov is the young star Yevgeny Mironov, the recent winner of the best-actor Nika, Russia's highest cinematic award, for his performance in Moslem*.

For good measure, Mikhail Gluzsky, the popular film actor who impressed so in a rare stage appearance in last season's An Old Man Wanted to Leave His Old Woman, delivers two fine scenes as Zosima, Dostoyevsky's archetypal vision of a wise priest. And Igor Kvasha, a leading actor and founding member at the Sovremennik, turns in an effective, grizzled, often humorous performance of Fyodor, the proudly debauched patriarch of the ill-fated Karamazov family.

So why is this show so flat and uninspiring? At least some of the answers are buried in what made the project so promising in the first place.

Yevgeny Mironov, a light, extraordinarily agile actor with a kind face and a winning, warm demeanor, is completely out of place as the hyperintellectual Ivan. Fokin could well have titled this production Ivan and Hell, for its focus rests squarely on Ivan, his battles with the notion of a God who lets evil exist in the world, and his repeated encounters with a pair of badgering devils (Avangard Leontyev and Aleksandr Kakhun).

Mironov, remaining at heart a kind of congenial next-door neighbor, would have been much more on target as the pious youngest son Alyosha (handled here routinely by Dmitry Petukhov). But with Mironov at the helm, the expected torque of Dostoyevsky's descent into existential nausea never occurs.

Sergei Garmash delivers a sincere if unspectacular Dmitry, the sensual eldest brother, while Vasily Mischenko is functional as Smerdyakov, the illegitimate brother who killed the father, thinking he was doing it with Ivan's blessing.

In the cast's partial defense, the play itself provides little to build on. Nikolai Klimontovich, who adapted the novel into 13 dramatic episodes whose chronology has been slightly reshuffled, seemed intent on picking on all the superficial signs which create the Dostoyevsky stereotype but do nothing to get inside the author's world.

The result is truncated literature merely transferred to the stage without any imbedded dramatic or theatrical devices capable of interpreting or remaking the original. Without that act of recreation, theater does not happen, and one might just as well read the book.

Fokin employed Bakshi's hissing, ticking and tocking music as he has before: having it emerge sometimes from behind the spectators' backs, sometimes from backstage. But where that was so effective in the controlled small spaces of his last two productions, the effect is lost in the large hall at the Sovremennik. The music remains nothing but random sounds unable to muster a sense of atmosphere.

Furthermore, the dark, heavy set by Woldemar Zawodzinski is so metaphorical as to border on the trite. Its crumbling walls of a cavernous "civilized" interior reveal layers of earth, rocks and roots breaking through, perhaps to hint that, like another of Dostoyevsky's famous characters, these people live "underground." A see-through, terrarium-like coffin protrudes into the first row of seats. From it the dead father emerges early on, leaving an empty space to which Smerdyakov will go when he commits suicide.

With all the Dostoyevsky adaptations that have been appearing of late, The Karamazovs and Hell is just another in the crowd. As for Fokin, word is that he's already at work on his next project. Let's get on to that one.

*SITE NOTE: The award that Mr. Mironov received for Moslem was actually the Film Critics' Award for Best Actor. The Best Actor Nika went to him the previous year for his performance in Limita.