Thursday, October 30, 2008

Real Torture

The Grand Inquisitor
Adapted by Marie-Hélène Estienne, from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov
Directed by Peter Brook
Starring Bruce Myers, Jake M. Smith

Performances from October 22 to November 30, 2008
New York Theater Workshop (co-presented with Theatre for a New Audience)
79 East 4th Street /

Myers in
The Grand Inquisitor
Peter Brook’s legacy is cemented by his stagings of the classics in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. But the innovation that marked such productions as his Midsummer Night’s Dream (1970)–which made his international reputation–and his marathon mounting of The Mahabharata (1985) has gradually been pared down as Brook has looked for ways to further strip theater to its bare essentials, to arrive at “the empty space” the director himself has described. (He has famously said that, with just one actor and one person watching, he can create theater anywhere.)

With The Grand Inquisitor, Brook has not only stripped down to the minimum, but has even gone past, if possible–he has also jettisoned the play. The result–a long monologue adapted from a small section of The Brothers Karamazov–is a textbook example of theater’s limitations. It’s undramatic, static, and–worst of all–dull.

The section of Dostoyevsky’s classic novel has been adapted by Brook’s collaborator, Marie-Hélène Estienne and takes place in Seville during the Spanish Inquisition. Christ has returned to earth and, after resurrecting a dead child, is arrested and thrown into a cell, where he is grilled by the inquisitor for a seeming eternity (actually some 50 minutes), remaining silent the entire time. Whereupon—after he’s sentenced to death by immolation—Christ stands and kisses the inquisitor, who allows him to leave, as long as he never returns.

Brook directs The Grand Inquisitor as minimally as possible; our narrator/inquisitor both describes the action and speaks all the dialogue as Christ sits motionless throughout until he stands and walks to the inquisitor at the end. The stage is bare except for a small rectangular platform on which the inquisitor/narrator walks, with a stool for himself and a chair for Christ.

In staging The Grand Inquisitor, Brook seems to be attempting a parallel to the religious lunacies occurring in our 21st century world, but it never convinces. And, since Bruce Myers isn’t a particularly noteworthy actor, his reading of this 8-1/2 page monologue doesn’t add any further illumination. Most impressive is Jake M. Smith as the stoic Christ, sitting frozen, moving nary a muscle until the very end. But when viewers are left staring at a statue-like actor rather than paying attention to the lead character, something’s wrong onstage.

Brook’s failure with The Grand Inquisitor should put to rest once and for all the notion that anything—no matter how undramatic—can be put onstage and called “theater.” This 50-minute sedative provides compelling evidence to the contrary.

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