- Field Guide by Rude Mechs
One could do worse than turn to the The Brothers Karamazov as a guidebook for living. Field Guide, commissioned by Yale Repertory Theatre, is Rude Mechs’ collaborative meditation on the novel’s usefulness in navigating life’s trials. The five actors in winter-white parkas, binoculars, and cold-weather gear entered ready to explore a novel as if it were foreign terrain. Rather than an adaptation, the production served as a reader-response to the Russian novel, complete with debates about free will, morality, and the existence of God, and the age-old primal conflict between fathers and sons, as well as the novel’s delineated personalities: the intellectual, Ivan; the spiritualist, Aloysha; the sensualist, Dimitri; and the miscreant, Smerdyakov. The production also keyed into specific plot details: Dimitri’s desire to murder his father and Fyodor’s subsequent death; Ivan’s argument that, lacking a belief in God, morality is self-determined; Dimitri’s affair with Grushenka; references to Father Zossima’s putrescent cadaver; and Dimitri’s exile to [End Page 553] a labor camp. Punctuating the plot were standup routines, dance pieces, and a meta-awareness of the narrative process. The resultant production emphasized the troupe’s investigative inquiry at the expense of polished, cohesive art, and the sum effect was dialogue that meandered, questions that were unresolved, and standup humor that failed. In so doing, it realistically illustrated the messy improvisations at the basis of all our lives.
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While the premise to reduce a Russian epic to ninety minutes on the stage seems eccentric whimsy, the boldness of the move frees the imagination from slavishly reproducing the tale. The performance fostered freedom in a number of ways: freedom from the authority of Dostoevsky’s text; freedom from theatrical conventions (Rude Mechs considers its work “genre-averse”); and freedom from a clear distinction between character and actor, as well as freedom from nineteenth-century realism. Costumes reinforced the archetypical nature of the characters, such as the lascivious Fyodor (Lowell Bartholomee), who appeared dressed as a satyr and defecated onstage, and Aloysha (Mari Akita), whose religiosity enabled him to hover above the stage, a gold-plated tray encircling his head as a halo. Even Ivan’s poem “The Grand Inquisitor”—a speech challenging Jesus Christ’s gift of free will to humans—was improvised each performance and freed the actor (Thomas Graves) from the exigencies of memorization.
Rude Mechs’ production style—earthy, indeterminate, primal, and disjointed—approximated the kind of “rough theater” that Peter Brook describes in The Open Space, particularly in the direct and honest connection between audience and spectator. The acting appropriated the 1957 motion movie of The Brothers Karamazov with its melodramatic style, which rendered the action slap-sticky and absurd. The costumes seemed outlined with a heavy black crayon reminiscent of a daguerreotype. Brechtian staging and crude properties, such as the vocalized narrations, the pulley system, and the rolling metal clothes rack, all contributed to an awareness of existence as temporary and makeshift. The very bareness of the stage reflected the stripping away of the novel’s edifice to arrive at a primitive expression of life, as seen in Dimitri’s desperate pleas for his inheritance—a single phrase repeated multiple times. The direct confrontation with the audience continued with the three confessional standup routines that stripped away superficial layers to reveal human, or ursine, vulnerability: even the bear’s monologue attested to his fraught relationship with his father.
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Mikhail Bahktin valued Dostoevsky’s novel for its dialogic nature. Out of similar respect for multiple [End Page 554] viewpoints, the company members collaboratively generated a performance text that offered varied perspectives. At the play’s end, several actors gathered around a table and made toasts after each one read aloud a favorite quotation from The Brothers Karamazov, communally...