The Idiot is never boring and definitely beautiful
Adapted and directed by James Fagan Tait. Music by Joelysa Pankanea. Produced by Neworld Theatre and Vancouver Moving Theatre. At the Frederic Wood Theatre on Friday, January 20 as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. Continues until January 29
This staging of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot looks beautiful for its entire three-and-a-half-hour length. It’s innovative in many ways and it’s never boring, but it’s never deeply engaging either. Watching it is kind of like driving along a lovely stretch of road.
In director James Fagan Tait’s adaptation, as in the book, the penniless Prince Myshkin returns to St. Petersburg after spending five years in Switzerland, where the orphaned youth was being treated for epileptic seizures and supposedly reduced mental capacity. Back in Russia, his guilelessness charms almost everyone he meets. Mrs. Yepanchin, a wealthy distant relative, takes him under her wing. And, when he publicly declares that the beauty Nastasya Filippovna Barashkov should not be regarded as “ruined” simply because the aristocratic Totsky took her as his mistress when she was a child, Nastasya is touched, and smitten. Romantic complications—which also involve Mrs. Yepanchin’s pretty daughter, Aglaya—ensue.
In many ways, the design, especially Itai Erdal’s lighting, is the star of this telling. Set designer Bryan Pollock creates a monumentally empty space on the Freddy Wood stage. Within that simplicity, costumer Mara Gottler presents exquisitely detailed costumes: a black and grey-green dress worn by one of the aristocratic women is a standout. Director Tait and movement coach Savannah Walling create living art with the actors: with Myshkin at the front of the entire cast, everyone walks with the slowness of a dream and Myshkin’s fit comes on. Erdal’s lighting brings this all together. Often, the warmly lit skin tones and beautiful fabrics, with darkness surrounding them, evoke the paintings of Rembrandt. At other times, bodies, moulded by light, acquire the exquisite weight of sculptures.
Joelysa Pankanea’s score—especially when it elevates the musicality of speech into song—also manages to be both simple and monumental.
This is true of Tait’s adaptation as well. Throughout, Tait juxtaposes the late-19th-century setting with colloquial, even mundane, speech: there’s a lot of “fuck you” and “bullshit” flying around. This choice is arresting, but all of the characters speak in the same voice, whether it suits them or not, and the giddy surprise of the obscenities quickly turns into a stale joke.
Emotionally, Tait’s reduction of the sprawling novel is hard to get a handle on. I was never particularly invested in the romantic tension between Myshkin and Nastasya; to me, at least, the figure of the elusive, damaged lover is tedious. And, when Myshkin turned his gaze towards Aglaya, I just didn’t get it; in this script, there’s not much to her character. Some scenes, including a long tangent about an illegitimate child, feel pretty much beside the point.
As a director, Tait has opted for a determinedly offhand style, which is interesting, but he keeps the level of the actors’ projection so low that I often strained—and sometimes failed—to hear. If you want the actors to speak at the level of ordinary conversation, mike ’em, or perform in a smaller space.
Within this design- and concept-heavy show, there are some extraordinary performances. Kevin MacDonald’s portrait of Myshkin is chief among them. Innocence isn’t easy to play, but MacDonald’s Myshkin glows with goodness. And the simple depth of feeling he finds is wrenching. Craig Erickson is also outstanding as Myshkin’s opposite, the self-serving Ganya, who wants to marry Nastasya for her dowry. Unfortunately, Cherise Clarke, who plays Nastasya, falls victim to Tait’s directorial understatement. Her performance may be emotionally true, but it didn’t reach the back of the theatre, where I was sitting.
The Idiotfeels shorter than its three-and-a-half hours. I wish that it ran more consistently deep.