THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV Lookingglass Theatre Company

“I still retain the conviction, that in games of chance, if one has perfect control of one’s will, so that the subtlety of one’s intelligence and one’s power of calculation are preserved, one cannot fail to overcome the brutality of blind chance and to win.” —Fyodor Dostoyevsky, A Raw Youth

The theme of finding, and training, the will to overcome the brutality of blind chance dominates Dostoyevsky’s greatest works—perhaps his sprawling, passionate, prolix 1881 masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov most of all. The novel’s obsessions with God and the devil understandably attract the most attention in our age of skepticism: even people who’ve never tackled the entire opus may know “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter, in which the title character upbraids his prisoner, Jesus, for offering hope and freedom to the dumb masses.

But the struggle to control one’s will is at least equally important. It’s the other side of the same coin, in fact. “God and the devil are at war and the battlefield is the human heart,” observes Dmitri Karamazov to his younger brother Alyosha. Our only hope is that mankind is strong enough to overcome evil through sheer willpower—and given historical precedent, most of us wouldn’t bet on it.

Starkly poetic, mordantly funny, occasionally overblown but often beguiling, the Lookingglass Theatre staging of The Brothers Karamazov balances 19th-century sentimentality with Russian nihilism, hitting the highlights of the book (as translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) without attempting to cram in too much detail. Some significant characters have been excised, but those who haven’t read the original—or haven’t read it in years, like me—probably won’t miss them. (The Inquisitor shows up, of course, and the devil makes a cameo appearance, just as in the book.) Adapter-director Heidi Stillman and her top-notch ensemble flesh out the folks who are left with simple grace and intelligence, keeping us mostly absorbed in the brothers’ intersecting stories through three hours and two intermissions.

The show establishes Dostoyevsky’s dichotomous worldview from the first moments as, surrounded by half-empty bottles and half-naked women, dissolute widower Fyodor Karamazov (a blistering Craig Spidle) cavorts in the family kitchen with his young sons looking on. Dan Ostling’s deftly designed cutaway house makes a full rotation and grown-up versions of the four boys—hotheaded soldier Dmitri, tortured intellectual Ivan, compassionate monk Alyosha, and embittered bastard servant Smerdyakov—now stand in place of their younger selves. A scream, a church bell, and the scene shifts again, to the cell of Father Zossima (Maury Cooper), Alyosha’s religious mentor. Fyodor has brought his sons there hoping that the kindly priest can reconcile them, particularly Dmitri, to their dad.

The battle between what one owes one’s immediate family and the family of man, to God the Father and one’s all-too-human father, forms the spine of Stillman’s adaptation. Dispensing with story-theater techniques such as direct narration and using a minimum of the trademark eye candy that sometimes gilds the Lookingglass lily (no undulating fabrics and only one brief moment of pretty snowfall here), Stillman plunges us into the desperation, broken dreams, and wounded pride that scar all of the characters. Dmitri (Joe Sikora) curses his father as a “great sensualist and a despicable comedian,” but one senses that he’s also describing himself—particularly since he, like his father, has been played for a fool by the flirtatious Grushenka (acted with insinuating, coldhearted charm by Chaon Cross). Meanwhile, Philip R. Smith’s tormented Ivan harbors an unrequited passion for Katerina (Louise Lamson), the anguished fiancee Dmitri has tossed aside; Smerdyakov hates the entire family for denying him his birthright; and Alyosha tries his damnedest to save everyone.

In the foreground through most of the play, Alyosha is innocent but not foolish, and Doug Hara avoids turning him into a plaster saint. In one particularly effective scene, he brings money from Katerina to a poor captain, Snegiryov (Steve Key), who Dimitri has publicly humiliated. Carried away by generosity, Alyosha tries to add cash from his own pocket but inadvertently insults the captain, who crumples up the rubles and storms off. The narrow territory between a tribute and an insult is crossed frequently during this show, where a simple bow can be a display of real gratitude or a chilling rebuke.

The captain and his consumptive but combative son, Ilyusha (Abigail Droeger), provide a touching counterpoint to the stormy Karamazov clan, and Alyosha’s efforts to help Ilyusha (who feels a bit like Little Nell from Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop—if Little Nell suffered from a behavioral disorder) offer a glimmer of hope at the end of the dark tunnel of the Karamazov soul.

Stillman has a real gift for making the overcooked earnestness of 19th-century prose come urgently to life—a gift I admired greatly in her 2001 production of Dickens’s Hard Times. Though the show has its unwieldy sections—a trial scene, in particular, comes off as potboiling melodrama—they’re outweighed by small, telling moments that linger in the mind: Lawrence Grimm’s emotionally stunted Smerdyakov singing a plaintive song in a Tiny Tim timbre, Lamson’s Katerina swishing nervously about in a constricting taffeta skirt (Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes slyly capture the essence of each character), Smith’s hand trembling as his Ivan handles a crucial bundle of rubles that could save Dmitri’s life.

Given the crabbed, self-conscious irony marking so much contemporary fiction, it’s a relief to reengage with writers like Dostoyevsky who were unafraid to tackle huge, hairy issues like the meaning of existence and the possibility of redemption. And 20 years into their creative life, it’s terrific to see the Lookingglass ensemble take a chance on a big story. Unlike some of their past work, in which they imposed mortal yearnings on fantastical or mythological creations, The Brothers Karamazov represents an admirable attempt to find that little spark of the divine inside damaged humans. Maybe that spark is enough to keep us going, even as we realize that controlling one’s will has little to do with controlling one’s destiny.v

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