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There are few texts less obviously conducive to theatrical adaptation than nineteenth Russian novels. Ponderous, emotionally weighty, thematically complex, featuring enough characters to populate both sides of the Napoleonic Wars, the works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky can hardly fit into two-to-three hours of stage time.
Except, of course, when they do.
The obvious model for Dmitri and the Three Thousand Kopeks – Zachary Tomlinson and Rosa Schneider’s adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov – Dave Malloy’s Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 – a musical adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Both productions share a pared-down cast, a thematically streamlined plot (along with fittingly character-specific new name), and slightly jarring dialogue that’s largely cribbed directly from the text in question.
But while Natasha uses the language of musical theatre to lend emotional heft to Tolstoy’s characters’ emotional and existential crises, Dmitri plays it straight: letting the three (for now) Karamazov brothers hash out the big questions of inheritance, patricide, God, sex, and responsibility utterly naturalistically (save for a few masks – more on that later) with Dostoevsky’s own not-quite-naturalistic dialogue intact.
It shouldn’t work. It can’t possibly work. But it absolutely does. Director Zachary Tomlinson lets his actors play out the dysfunctional scenes in question – fathers disowning sons, sons hitting on their fathers’ love interests, brothers debating the nature of faith – like they’re straight out of August: Osage County. The dialogue may tend toward the philosophical, but the emotional responses of the actors never seems anything less than utterly real.
Much of this, of course, is down to some truly stellar performances. As a whole, the cast of Dmitri is the strongest I’ve seen this year (possibly tied only with Malloy’s own latest project, Ghost Quarter). As the saintly Alyosha and the chilling “idiot” Smerdyakov (and some other minor characters), Jesse Brenneman is outstanding: managing to make even the most awkward character changes – he’s frequently called upon to exit in one role and enter immediately afterward in another – completely seamless: a chance to display his virtuosic abilities rather than cause for awkwardness. (Cf.his response to an impromptu costume malfunction). His Alyosha is the perfect “straight man” to the family chaos – he finds the humor in the midst of bleakness – while Smerdyakov is an onstage approximation of true evil in humble garb. But his performance is one of many extraordinary ones on offer here. As the buffoonish patriarch – in commedia mask, no less – Mackenzie Knapp creates a character that is at once utterly repellent and strangely sympathetic. As the “sensualist” Dmitri, Gordon Landenberger powerfully combines the romanticism and the desperation inherent in his position. And as Ivan, the perpetual middle child, Calder Jameson Shilling captures the disdainful irony that – we learn – may be even more dangerous than the erotic desperation of his older brother.
Not everything works. Tomlinson’s willingness to experiment with different theatrical innovations – masks, direct address to the audience, naturalism – is often exciting, but at times can border on kitchen-sink (an instance where Dmitri begs for money from the audience feels jarring and unnecessary). And, while it’s understandable that certain elements of Karamazov need to be cut to make the piece workable, the production – which focuses so strongly on the Freudian elements of the text – sidelines the religious qualities Dostoevsky’s text to a perhaps excessive extent – Smerdyakov’s fatal overhearing of Ivan’s philosophical wondering if “without God, everything is permitted” is cut from the text, changing the nature of Ivan’s subsequent mental breakdown. We don’t get a Grand Inquisitor, Ivan’s dream of Satan, or much of Father Zosima, either. (Full disclosure: I’m a theologian whose master’s thesis was on religion in Brothers K, so I’m more likely to be picky about this than the average theatergoer).
Still, Dmitri and the Three Thousand Kopeks is an extraordinary, exciting piece of theatre: proof that a strong directorial vision and honest performances can go a long way towards performing even the most “unperformable” piece. It, too, confirms my sneaking suspicion – gleaned from my 2015 theatre calendar so far – that, the less high-profile the play (and the cheaper the tickets), the more novel and truly arresting the work. There’s no better use of $18 in New York theatre this week.
Dmitri only runs in this space through February 1st, however. If there’s any fairness in the world, it’ll be back (and probably far more expensive) before long.
Tara Isabella Burton
Tara Isabella Burton is the Arts Editor at Litro NY. You can find her writing at National Geographic, Al Jazeera America, The Atlantic, and more.