Those Crazy Karamazovs

Review of Field Guide, Yale Repertory Theatre

Are you tired of plays that purport to enact a slice-of-life—a family gathering, two twenty-somethings finding love or not, the hi-jinx that ensue when a mix-matched foursome get together? If “yes,” treat yourself to a viewing of Field Guide by the Austin-based exploratory theater troupe Rude Mechs (short for “rude mechanicals”’—you know, Puck’s epithet for the crew that tries to put on a play at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Rude Mechs, in their world premiere show at Yale Repertory Theatre, live up to their name: they deliberately eschew polish for the sake of provocation, creating their own theatrical world with its own rules and its own rewards.

 Alyosha (Mari Akita), Dmitri (Lana Lesley), Ivan (Thomas Graves) (photos by Joan Marcus)

Alyosha (Mari Akita), Dmitri (Lana Lesley), Ivan (Thomas Graves) (photos by Joan Marcus)

And if you’re of a mind to see plays that purport to revisit classics with a contemporary sensibility, you might find Field Guide just your thing or a step beyond. Consider the entertaining hash that Shakespeare’s “rude mechanicals” made of the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, and you’ll be prepared—somewhat—for what the Rude Mechs do to Dostoevsky’s duly celebrated quintessential Russian novel The Brothers Karamazov.

A classic page turner involving patricide, a father-son rivalry over a much admired coquette, a brother-brother rivalry over a rich, prim bourgeois woman, the jaundiced view of a bastard son, and the “spiritual yearning” of a son become religious acolyte, together with a troubled atheist’s parable about how a returned Jesus would be bad for the Church, The Brothers K. is a tour de force of existential quandaries before the “e word” was invented. Rude Mechs keep the unease of Dostoevsky’s work and contribute an off-hand humor by which most elements of the story become excuses for theatrical asides. We’re sort of in the story but also waiting for the story to start even if—as is always the case with novels—it already happened and never happened.

 Lowell Bartholomee

Lowell Bartholomee

The show starts when the troupe—clad in snow parkas—walk into the theater through an exit door. As the Mechs get into preparations behind a curtain, Hannah Kenah, as Hannah, entertains us with the first of several stand-up routines—a later one featured Lowell Bartholomee in a hell of a bear costume. The use of the device not only keeps us at a remove from the “action,” it also creates a loosely confessional atmosphere as the person at the mic indulges in those little moments of truth/fiction that drive the form: “I get my possessiveness and my lack of generosity from my mother. I have my father’s calves.” The themes of family, inheritance, and, particularly, fathers runs through the show.

 Smerdyakov (Robert S. Fisher), Fyodor (Lowell Bartholomee)

Smerdyakov (Robert S. Fisher), Fyodor (Lowell Bartholomee)

The main lines of the book are there, snipped up to become routines in a general questioning of life. The sensualist, the intellectual, the religious, the resentful one, the unlovable father, all offer a perspective, and all, like Grushenka, hope they’re not as bad as they seem to be. As with a Chekhov play, everyone has something to add to the picture of dysfunction, though here the characters are apt to be very aware of their theatrical effects.

 Fyodor (Lowell Bartholomee), Grigory (Hannah Kenah), Alyosha (Mari Akita), Smerdyakov (Robert S. Fisher), Ivan (Thomas Graves)

Fyodor (Lowell Bartholomee), Grigory (Hannah Kenah), Alyosha (Mari Akita), Smerdyakov (Robert S. Fisher), Ivan (Thomas Graves)

This is a Brothers K. in which Alyosha (Mari Akita), the would-be monk, levitates and does an interpretive dance that is spellbinding. This is a Brothers K., in which Smerdyakov (Robert S. Fisher), the bastard, fondles a cat and offers his half-brother Ivan a glass of water, repeatedly. This is a Brothers K. where Ivan (Thomas Graves) hangs out in a hot tub and pontificates about humanity. A Brothers K. in which Dmitri (Lana Lesley), as the voice of Dostoevsky’s belief in the moral value of suffering, attains a surly conscience, and in which Katya (Kenah) is a joke and Grushenka (Kenah) too slight, in which the father, Fyodor (Bartholomee), lacks debauched grandeur and is more testy than overbearing. This is a Brothers K. in which a horned goat-man (Bartholomee) craps on the stage and an ironic bounce castle is an epic fulfillment of impossible longing.

 Dmitri (Lana Lesley)

Dmitri (Lana Lesley)

Hannah, back again at the mic late in the play, remarks, “the premise of this joke is that nobody is watching,” and proceeds to elicit the sense of how readers participate in the scenes of the novel in an intrinsic way. It’s an interesting moment that asks us to ask what our watching contributes. What “coming out tonight” to see the show means. In part, it means being witness to much lovely stage business, including choreographed boxes and a quietly evocative lighting design by Brian H. Scott, with rich costumes by Sarah Woodham, and striking tableaux.

 Lana Lesley (kneeling), Lowell Bartholomee, Mari Akita, Hannah Kenah, Robert S. Fisher, Thomas Graves

Lana Lesley (kneeling), Lowell Bartholomee, Mari Akita, Hannah Kenah, Robert S. Fisher, Thomas Graves

But it also means joining the team for a kind of chastened comedy that at times felt a bit low energy, and musing about what we get from our parents and what we don’t get, and what we owe them and ourselves—keeping in mind that, for some, “our father” might be God. The play takes the condition of those crazy Karamazovs and makes it general, like how frightening the existential dread of the human condition would be if we couldn’t say stupid things about it. And sometimes, as in Hannah Kenah’s text, we get to say quite beautiful and poetic things about it. The universe may not care, but at least we got out of the house.

Dmitri: Maybe life is a long search for meaning that ends in a joke.
Grushenka: And we fall for it every time.

 

Field Guide
Created by Rude Mechs
Inspired by The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Text: Hannah Kenah; Direction: Shawn Sides; Scenic Design: Eric Dyer: Sound Design: Robert S. Fisher; Original Music: Graham Reynolds; Lighting Design: Brian H. Scott; Costume Design: Sarah Woodham; Production Dramaturgy: Amy Boratko; Stage Management: Bianca A. Hooi; Fight Direction: Rick Sordelet; Technical Direction: Steph Waaser

Cast: Mari Akita, Lowell Barholomee, Robert S. Fisher, Thomas Graves, Hannah Kenah, Lana Lesley

Yale Repertory Theatre
January 26-February 17, 2018