The idea of adapting Fyodor Dosteyevsky’s monumental final novel The Brothers Karamazov for the stage is a staggering one. It’s not just a matter of keeping the many characters and complicated dramatic plotlines clear for the viewer; it’s the even more challenging aspect of also bringing to life Dostoyevsky’s arguments about religion and morality, which can take up page after page in the reading. How to simplify or streamline without losing much of the original?
Writer Roland Reed took on the task of the adaptation, and now the FSU/Asolo Conservatory has taken on the task of presenting his version of this complex, sometimes frustrating story. Under the direction of Andrei Malaev-Babel, the full second-year class of MFA students has done a great deal of work to examine their characters and their motivations—even if not all of it makes the translation to us, we can sense that they feel they know what they are about.
To put it at the most basic level, The Brothers Karamazov is about a family for which dysfunctional is too mild a word. The brothers of the title are the eldest, Dmitry (Brendan Ragan), who takes after his dissolute father, Fyodor (Francisco Rodriguez), both in the pursuit of drink and of the same fallen woman, Grushenka (an appropriately mercurial Kelly Campbell); the middle son, the intellectual Ivan (Jesse Dornan), who disdains God; and the good-hearted would-be monk Alyosha (Jacob Cooper), who tries to follow the right path in life. Oh, there’s a fourth, illegitimate brother, too, Smerdyakov (Zak Wilson), who’s used and abused as a family servant by his father.
So there are suspects aplenty when Fyodor is killed and some of his money turns up missing. But attempting to solve that crime is a mere hook upon which to hang so much more in the debate about whether or not God exists and whether, if not, everything is allowed.
There are other important characters to factor in: Dmitry’s proud fiancée, Katerina (Sarah Brown) and Alyosha’s childlike perhaps-fiancee, Lise (Lindsey Tornquist), whose own mother (Brittany Proia) calls her crazy, with smaller appearances by the Grand Inquisitor (Joseph McGranaghan) and the Devil himself (or herself, in this case, played by Erin Whitney). You almost need a scorecard, but you can count on this: Virtually everyone in this most Russian of Russian novels is tormented, feverish and on the verge of some form of insanity.
In the concept of this production, the ensemble is important, too, as a sort of Greek chorus helping to tell the story or comment on the action, whether they be taunting schoolboys, monks, villagers or courtroom figures. The mostly black-and-white costumes (with the exception, of course, of red for Grushenka), the design of the set (which places some audience members on the stage, but is occasionally awkward for the cast in its use of small movable tables) and the lighting (by Rick Cannon) contribute to the production’s often gloomy atmosphere.
There’s much more that could be said about an epic story like this, but to sum it up, the cast does an admirable job of meeting a heroic challenge. Whether or not the three-hour production leaves you riveted or restless, however, depends on your appetite for tortured souls. The Brothers Karamazov continues at the Cook Theatre through Nov. 20; call 351-8000 or go to asolorep.org.