Unanswered Questions 

CentralWorks' Grand Inquisitor leaves us hanging, and exhausted.

Eighteen pages out of nearly eight hundred: The poema, or story, of the Grand Inquisitor is a mere slip of a thing compared to the hulking mass from which it is drawn. But the story Ivan Karamazov tells his younger brother Alyosha is perhaps the best-known bit of Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov -- probably as much for its thought-provoking subject matter as for the fact that it shows up early enough in the book that the folks who won't make it to the end might still be around.

Clearly the story spoke to CentralWorks' Gary Graves, who stepped out of the directorial shadows to act in the company's new adaptation (neatly switching places with Jan Zvaifler, who directs this time instead of acting). It's a bit of a jolt. With his head shaved and teeth blackened, Graves is virtually unrecognizable as the creepy, aged protagonist of Ivan's parable about freedom and responsibility. He shares the stage with CentralWorks newcomer David Westley Skillman, who plays all the other roles, using a variety of beautiful voices; the result is intense, if numbing. This one just doesn't let up, whether a character is having some kind of seizure or listening to the crackling flames of what could be hell -- or the stake -- or both.

It took Dostoyevsky just three years to write The Brothers Karamazov -- one year planning and two years writing. Happily for him it was serialized, so he could hear readers' responses and enjoy the acclaim -- a consolation, considering that he died shortly after the novel was finished in 1880. The full novel is the story of three brothers, their despised father, and a murder trial. The small story within is the atheist Ivan trying to explain himself to Alyosha, and quoting Friedrich Schiller (which Dostoyevsky does a lot): "It's not that I don't accept God, Alyosha; I just most respectfully return him the ticket."

Ivan spins a tale of Seville at the height of the Spanish Inquisition, and a Grand Inquisitor who delights in having burned a hundred apostates at the stake just the day before. Everything is hunky-dory with the Inquisition until the Nazarene shows up, come back to earth to see what has been done in his name. The rest of Ivan's story consists of the Inquisitor explaining to Jesus why he is no longer welcome, and Jesus listening without comment. The most action-packed moment comes at the end, when Jesus kisses the Inquisitor and leaves. It's a talky story, to put it mildly.

CentralWorks has taken the story and filled it out. It's still talky, but now the Inquisitor is taken with fits where he doesn't remember his manservant or where he is, and now he interacts with four visitors with whom he has varying power relationships. Speaking of power, in a transparent move apparently meant to indicate his own ambivalence and self-loathing, he has also developed a taste for a little BDSM (that's a mixed acronym for bondage & discipline, dominance & submission, and sadism & masochism). It's an innovation that would probably stun Dostoyevsky, even if he did spend the pages leading up to the parable having Ivan gleefully detail horrible things done to children that the author had found in the newspapers. Eighteen pages becomes an hour and a half without intermission, and the Inquisitor's point -- that the great wad of humanity doesn't have the strength of character to be real free people, thus the Church must step in and take control, allowing the masses to live as children -- gets pounded home with the ferocity of Ugo the head torturer's Head Crusher. "They think they're free," the Inquisitor explains, "but the truth is that they have brought their freedom to us and laid it at our feet."

Besides the BDSM, other liberties have been taken. For example, the source material is not ambiguous. Ivan begins the story with a miracle: Jesus revives a dead girl in the sight of the Grand Inquisitor, who has him arrested. The CentralWorks adaptation is not nearly so clear-cut. Here there are rumors that "he" has come to town (his name is never spoken), tales of miracles, the arrest, and a drawn-out and completely one-sided interview where the Inquisitor tries to make the other man say something. Anything. There is some question of whether the miracles actually occurred, and we are left -- as is so often the case with CentralWorks plays -- unsure. Same thing happened in the Mysterious Mr. Looney last year: Was the title character really Shakespeare or not? A couple of years back, was Mata Hari a spy -- or not? Did Enemy Combatant's Marvin kill the CIA man -- or not? It's a game CentralWorks likes to play with its audience, but like much of this work, it's starting to feel like the company is working to a formula.

It's equally unclear at first whether the decision to have Skillman playing four roles is meant to inject levity into the proceedings -- especially when one of the roles requires that the actor cross-dress. Combined with the Inquisitor's frequent fits, it begs the question: Is the Inquisitor dreaming, or possibly hallucinating? How much of this is really happening?

Others have pulled something dreamlike from the parable. The Grand Inquisitor is allegedly First Lady Laura Bush's favorite bit of writing, a factoid that moved Tony Kushner to write an antiwar play, Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy. In it, Mrs. Bush reads the story to three dead Iraqi children who can only make bird sounds; the more she reads, the more she starts to break ranks with her husband and his war. The Kushner version isn't finished, but the playwright has allowed it to be read all over the country by anyone who says they're opposed to the war in Iraq.

Where Kushner has taken the story and sewn it neatly to the Bush dynasty, CentralWorks has modernized without straying as far from the source. It would be nice if they had strayed a little further. While as intelligent as anything else the company has done, The Grand Inquisitor could use a little more variety, a little relief. Without the framework of Ivan and Alyosha's spirited interaction, this piece stands to collapse under its own weight.


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