The Idiot

Lookingglass Theatre Company

at About Face Theatre

By Adam Lange

The sad, dark, brooding eyes seem to display a capacity for infinite understanding. The slightly high-pitched and vaguely rabbinical voice, sometimes barely rising above a whisper, suggests a rare compassion. First appearing all in white and clutching a loaf of bread, he wanders about the stage with an air of mournful wisdom that suggests either the simple healer in Carl Dreyer’s film Ordet or the twisted messianic figure in Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal.

The actor is David Schwimmer, and though he’s not playing Christ, he comes awfully close as Prince Myshkin, the hero of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. For those who know Schwimmer only for his television work, and even for those who somehow missed the phenomenon of Friends, his performance here comes as a revelation. Despite a quiet, unassuming presence, Schwimmer is hypnotizing as this epileptic visionary, a man the novelist referred to as “a positively beautiful individual.” From the time he arrives on the doorstep of his cousin Madame Yepanchin, her husband the general, and their two daughters, Alexandra and Aglaya, Schwimmer as Myshkin maintains a wide-eyed unflappability despite the acquisition of unexpected wealth and his vain attempts to rescue the beautiful, fallen Nastasya Filippovna.

Throughout Dostoyevsky’s novel and this Lookingglass Theatre production, Myshkin seems a man truly born yesterday, someone who arrived on earth a fully grown innocent. And whenever the character is unable to stave off the convulsive tremors of his affliction and is overcome by his visions, Schwimmer’s fits are horrifyingly real, displaying not only immense physical prowess but a striking emotional depth, as if the world were too much for his body to bear.

In direct contrast to Schwimmer’s eerie gurulike demeanor is Michael Shannon’s dark magnetism as the drunken Rogozhin, who also seeks to woo the captivating Filippovna. Slyly pacing the stage with a demonic swagger, a piercing leer, and a preternaturally aged voice, Shannon is one of those rare performers whose presence is as commanding as a live grenade: he perfectly captures perfectly what Dostoyevsky refers to as an “insolent, mocking and even malicious smile.” Anyone who saw Shannon as Berenger in A Red Orchid Theatre’s production of Ionesco’s The Killer can attest to this performer’s energy, volatility, and charisma. He and Schwimmer are the perfect foils, representing opposite ends of human nature.

Between these two poles is the extraordinarily ordinary Ganya, a civil servant who lacks both Myshkin’s goodness and Rogozhin’s passion. Doomed to a life of insignificance–he’ll never rise above the position of bureaucratic functionary–he’s always the second or third choice of the women he seeks: he has the hapless air of a sap on the order of poor Freddy in Pygmalion. Yet in many ways Philip Rayburn Smith’s performance transcends the portrayals by the remarkable Schwimmer and Shannon. Embodying neither the apex of man’s potential nor the depths of his depravity, Smith’s Ganya is all too familiar, human and breathtakingly real. Succeeding at marrying neither Filippovna for her money nor the somewhat petulant Aglaya for love, he accepts his lifetime of petty defeats with quiet pain, which Smith gives heartbreaking accuracy.

The star power of these three performances is reason enough to see Lookingglass Theatre’s adaptation of The Idiot, written and directed by David Catlin. But the exquisite craftsmanship of the production is what lifts it beyond mere actors’ vehicle into the realm of transcendent theatrical experience. The play opens with two arresting images–a model train streaking its way through the darkness and a black-and-white film by ensemble member John Musial that introduces some of the play’s characters and themes. Catlin makes excellent use of Musial’s cinematic talents throughout, as shots of train tracks are dizzyingly intercut with images of cemeteries and Filippovna (Heidi Stillman) in a wedding dress, eerily beckoning the viewer closer. The judiciously employed film segments not only help to establish the mood but embody Myshkin’s jittery point of view: for him the outside world is distorted and passes by all too quickly.

Dostoyevsky may well be considered the Shakespeare of prose for the sheer emotional depth and complexity of his work. Confining his writing, whose scope is awe inspiring, to the stage is obviously a daunting proposition. But Catlin focuses his adaptation effectively around Myshkin’s role as an unsuccessful savior in both the love triangle involving himself, Ganya, and Aglaya and the love rectangle involving himself, Ganya, Rogozhin, and Filippovna, a paragon whom he seeks to rescue from a life of misery and self-loathing. Though Catlin has cut much of the original material, the sharp narrative is consistently compelling.

One phrase resonates throughout the adaptation, a sort of thematic statement. “We all have this need to be saved,” the characters advise us, as does Catlin himself in his director’s note: “We live in a world that still has monsters, where we still need to be saved.” Yet Myshkin–a potential savior plunked down in a world of sinners–is unable to save any of them. He can’t save Filippovna, traveling her inevitable path to self-destruction. He can’t save Rogozhin from his uncontrollable passions, which eventually lead him to murder. He can’t save Ganya from his ordinary life of disappointment. He’s unable to save even himself. Myshkin may appear to be a savior, but despite his best efforts, he’s a savior who damns.

Catlin’s slow but confident production has the mesmerizing effect of watching a photograph develop. The design elements–a Lookingglass trademark–are radiant as usual but not particularly obtrusive. When Madame Yepanchin first appears with her daughters, their saffron, cherry, and turquoise gowns (by Mara Blumenfeld) illustrate but don’t overwhelm the scenes. And the few visual tricks employed–including beautiful color washes on an upstage screen and a striking image of Filippovna in her wedding dress engulfed by Rogozhin’s black cape–are less gimmickry than the finishing touches on a deftly realized, carefully detailed production.

The only weak points are a few of Catlin’s casting choices–which might not have been as noticeable had Schwimmer, Shannon, Smith, and a few of the supporting players (including Lawrence E. DiStasi as the unctuous opportunist Lebedev) not performed with such admirable flair. Stillman in particular is unconvincing as Flippovna. Though she may physically fit Dostoyevsky’s description (“Her eyes were dark and deep, her brow was pensive; her expression was passionate and, as it were, disdainful.”), she doesn’t have the commanding presence and haughty demeanor the role requires, seeming little more than snippy when she’s supposed to be scathing. Similarly, Louise Lamson doesn’t seem fully committed emotionally to her role as Aglaya; one is always conscious of the fact that she’s acting. And though Troy West and Marilyn Dodds Frank are engaging actors, for Catlin to double cast them as Monsieur and Madame Yepanchin and Ganya’s working-class parents seems a tactical error. Frank especially has such an idiosyncratic, quirky presence that one sees the actress instead of the character in both parts.

Nevertheless, few shows in recent memory have offered the simultaneous technical, artistic, and literary inspiration of this production. By the final blackout even those who were cracking wise about “sitcom Dostoyevsky” before the show must have acknowledged the power and commitment of this distinguished effort.

The following plays are reviewed this week in Section Two: Beneath a Dark Sky; two productions of The Diviners; Don’t Drink the Water; A Hard Day’s Journey Into Night; If the White House Is a-Rockin’, Don’t Come a-Knockin’ (Second City E.T.C.); Mud; Significants and Others; Two Timing; and The Wound and the Bow.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still uncredited.