Lighter Side of a Dostoyevsky Downer
Posted February 6, 2018 4:38 p.m. EST
Have you ever wanted to see a towering novel of moral anguish reduced to an 80-minute romp? Oh, good: me, too.
So it pains me to report that “Field Guide,” a semigoofball, semisearching distillation of Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” isn’t much fun. Created by Rude Mechs and produced by Yale Repertory Theater, which commissioned it, “Field Guide” distills 800 pages of text into alt-comedy riffs, surrealist digressions and several scenes in which cardboard set pieces whiz around the stage more or less by themselves.
“The Grand Inquisitor” section? It’s here. And it’s set in a hot tub.
To see the show among Dostoyevsky fans was to watch an audience move from excited to perplexed to annoyed. A couple of spectators used that gift of freedom with which they were born and left midway.
Rude Mechs, a company from Austin, Texas, has concocted some superb pieces, like a cooler-than-cool adaptation of Greil Marcus' “Lipstick Traces” and an ultradry staging of the David Rees comic strip “Get Your War On.” When they’re good, they’re very, very good — hip and brash and welcoming.
But when they’re bad, as in the Tennessee Williams riff “The Method Gun,” they’re smug and in-jokey, like a table full of popular kids who won’t let you put your tray down. (There are plays in the middle, too, like the half-formed “Stop Hitting Yourself,” which played at LCT3 a few years ago and is fondly remembered for its queso fountain.)
“Field Guide,” directed by Shawn Sides, isn’t one of the great ones. It begins well enough, with an anhedonic standup set by Hannah Kenah, a pileup of nonjokes like “So I ran into my hairdresser at a coffee shop the other day. I think she was pretty disappointed.” They land with the bounce of a punctured beach ball.
We’re then introduced to the Karamazov dad and brothers, who are dressed in Sarah Woodham’s period-lite costumes. For those keeping score at home, there’s Dmitri, the bad boy; Ivan, the intellectual; Alyosha, the aspiring monk; and Smerdyakov, the bastard.
After that, there are more nonjokes, more plot summaries, more self-driving furniture and a monologue delivered by a bear that probably made more sense in rehearsal. I don’t doubt that there’s powerful internal logic driving the ordering of these sections, but external logic is nice, too. And a lot of the techniques that once seemed fresh — the fragments, the slapstick, the madcap sound design — now feel like clichés.
Every so often the humor edges toward something sadder and more searching, as when Kenah takes the mic again to reflect that while reading a novel means sharing in another’s suffering, “in real life, solitude is solitary. Sorrow is brutal.”
In a scene near the end, several actors sit down to dinner together and read aloud inspirational passages from the novel. “I think everyone should love life above everything in the world,” one says. “How good life is when one does something good and just,” another offers.
“The Brothers Karamazov” goes heavy on suicide and rotting corpses, but as a guidebook for life, you could do worse. And as inspiration for a sardonic, ramshackle show, you could do a lot better.
Through Feb. 17 at the Yale Repertory Theater, New Haven, Connecticut; 203-432-1234, yalerep.org. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.