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Feodor Dostoyevsky’s Christmas Carol 

Circle X visits The Brothers Karamazov

Thursday, Dec 29 2005
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Just like Charles Dickens, and at about the same time at a continent’s remove, Feodor Dostoyevsky was also writing A Christmas Carol — at least, if we’re to believe Anthony Clarvoe (Show and Tell,The Living,Let’s Play Two and Pick Up Ax), who condensed Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, for the stage in an adaptation that plays up the Dickens-like themes of Christian goodness, charity, faith and redemption. Karamazov also includes a ghost who hangs around to scare the crap out of one of the characters, though there’s not a single reference to Christmas pudding. The glaring difference between Dickens and Dostoyevsky lies in the ways they posit good and evil. Unlike in Dickens, whose characters tend to be naughty or nice, the people in Dostoyevsky are tormented by opposing temperaments lodged deep within their DNA — particularly the three (and-a-half) Karamazov brothers, one of whom murders their father. They battle with themselves as much as with each other as they lurch toward some kind of purification, while debating and/or mocking the purpose of Christ and the existence of God. The Karamazovs collectively embody the boisterous, self-loathing, sadomasochistic and pious character of Mother Russia.Clarvoe’s smart, fluid play was first presented in 2002 by New Jersey’s 12 Miles West Theater Company, and now enjoys a glorious revival by Circle X Theater Company at Hollywood’s [Inside] the Ford. (Performances resume after the New Year.) In his adaptation, Clarvoe joins a chorus of scholars and post-9/11 commentators who argue that, since the end of the Cold War, Russia and America have been steadily fusing into the same nation. So goes the argument: The thuggish, corrupt political machine that over centuries has shaped Russian government now sprouts democratic feathers, while America’s Republican virtues of personal liberty, privacy and opportunity are slowly falling under the tank treads and Spyware technology of state-sponsored totalitarianism. In an invented scene at the top of Act 3, a seminary student named Rakitin (Kevin Fabian) poses as a speaker at a book signing, addressing a question from the gallery about why the murder of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov (John Getz) by one of his sons has become so notorious. “It strikes a chord,” Rakitin explains. “It’s a violent crime. We’re a violent country... Certainly compared with Europe. We’re a younger society. Look, some people don’t want to hear this, but we are a nation of Karamazovs: violent, squandering, ruthless. We’re the children of slave owners. This country was built by the labor of serfs. That is our original sin. But that is how our pioneer fathers subdued this land... what they built by the whip and the sword... Without that ‘original sin,’ who are we?”To see Russia, all America has to do is look in the mirror: As recent Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter pointed out in his statement to the prize committee, we were counting the victims of Soviet atrocities in lands near and far, we were broadcasting them, publishing them in history books — sins the communists committed for “the glory of the people.” Meanwhile, the victims of our policies — of the dictators and their henchmen we installed and armed mostly but not exclusively in Latin America — simply vanished through kidnappings and deaths uncounted, unacknowledged, in a quest for what we called “freedom and democracy.” Pinter iterates that their anonymity doesn’t make their suffering, or our hypocrisy, any less true.In the novel, a Russian Orthodox elder, Father Zosima, tries to calm the brothers’ father, Fyodor, who’s been making stupid jokes, then apologizing, then explaining why he can’t stop his pathological grandstanding. Zosima may as well be addressing the defenders of our own imperial adventures: “Above all,” the elder says, “don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love, and in order to occupy and distract himself without love he gives way to passions and coarse pleasures, and sinks to bestiality in his vices, all from continual lying to other men and to himself.” Father and sons There’s no way Clarvoe could begin to put the entire novel — with its 94 chapters — into a play that lasts a single evening. Instead, he focuses on the character of Dmitri Karamazov (Paul Witten) — Fyodor’s first son — a gambler and rogue who’s desperately and earnestly trying to reform his ways. Clarvoe’s flyover view inevitably shortchanges much of Dostoyevsky’s effusive gift for detail. Nonetheless, many essences remain, some of which are even enhanced, and they percolate in director John Langs’ stirring production. The play’s first scenes mirror a chapter that unfolds in Book II of the novel, a scene in a monastery where Dmitri has asked Father Zosima (John Combs) to negotiate with Fyodor a settlement of Dmitri’s “birthright” money. In this scene, the three brothers — plus one servant (Doug Sutherland) who may well also be kin, given the tawdry circumstances of his conception — meet each other for the first time. Clarvoe faces the daunting task of packing five chapters of back story into a few terse interchanges, so that we’re left to wonder how, for instance, Fyodor lost custody of three strapping boys. Dostoyevsky’s novel spells it out, but here it’s swept over in Fyodor’s line to his sons, “You’ve come back to me.”In both the play and novel, Dmitri emerges as the prime suspect in his father’s murder. Whether or not he actually bludgeoned the old man, he’s convicted of the crime and sentenced to exile in Siberia. In the novel, he reiterates his innocence and begs for the court’s mercy. In Clarvoe’s interpretation, however, Dmitri walks the high road. Saying he’s innocent of the patricide but guilty of a corrupt life, Dmitri actually implores his mistress at the trial to reveal potentially damning evidence against him, for his trek to Siberia will be a pilgrimage. For reasons probably having to do with the dramaturgical requirements of a Scrooge-like transformation, Clarvoe excises Dmitri’s courtroom cries of “spare me, spare me!” from his adaptation. Instead, Dmitri meets his fate stoically, with newfound enlightenment.This is a rare production of a Russian classic in which all of the performers are actually in the same style — a credit as much to the quality of the actors as to Langs’ taut, urgent vision. Langs brings to the fore Clarvoe’s remarkable ability to capture Dostoyevsky’s symmetry of opposites. For example, take Katya (Jamey Hood) and Grushenka (Rebecca Avery) — Katya an heiress (Dmitri’s fiancée for a moment), Grushenka a mistress (to both Fyodor and Dmitri); the former brunette, the latter blond. Hood’s Katya oozes Christian charity, rather like a Hollywood celebrity paying penance at a homeless shelter, while Avery’s cool, spiteful Grushenka dangles men from strings, like yo-yos. By play’s end, each has inverted into her opposite.Getz’s Fyodor is pure comic malevolence; a powerful physical presence sweating with emotional bluster. Beneath the good humor of Colin Doty’s reedlike Ivan (the middle son) lies his fuming atheism, and the novel-defining philosophy that without faith lies a journey to hell where “everything is permitted.” Witten plays Dmitri as a swaggering wound, a typical Dostoyevskian who articulates an eloquent, elegant guide to life, and then does precisely the opposite of what he says.Brian Sidney Bembridge’s scenic and lighting design sets the action on a bi-level frame of platforms and black walls scribbled with Russian graffiti. Shafts of light pour through smoke and gloom, sculpting the actors as though in a fresco depicting the ascent from hell to heaven, underscoring the moral price both Russia and America must pay for their sins.THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV | Adapted by ANTHONY CLARVOE from the novel by FEODOR DOSTOYEVSKY | Presented by CIRCLE X THEATER COMPANY at [Inside] the Ford, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood | Plays through February 4 (dark December 22–January 5) | (213) 804-5491

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