Arguably Russia's greatest novelist, and inarguably one of its most significant moral philosophers, Count Tolstoy also turned his talents late in life to the stage. He wrote three plays, the last one in 1900 entitled The Living Corpse. This month, it received its first New York (probably its first American) staging in almost 70 years at La MaMa's First Street theatre. As adapted here, the essential plot remains the same: when a man's wife falls in love with a Chamberlain of the Imperial Court, he fakes his own death to let them be together. But he cannot just walk away from his life. The ruse is discovered, and the two lovers are arrested for adultery. Along the way, the original husband, Fedya, travels a spiritual path from alienation to the recovery of his soul.
Unfortunately, Brown has, for some inexplicable motive, reversed the chronological order of the scenes. The production opens with Fedya declaring his newly redeemed moral code before the Magistrate, then flows backward to his original state of spiritual dislocation. A reverse chronology can work dramatically, as in Pinter's Betrayal and Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along, where it was done to bring out the bitter, lacerating irony of those works' unhappy endings. But, here, the play lost the sense of inner enlightenment through strife that is at the marrow of Tolstoy's drama. The device seemed a lame gimmick.
But Brown had other gimmicks, as well. The main role of Fedya was cast with a woman (more on this later). And the other women in the cast were all visibly the same age, even though they play mothers and daughters. Brown described his visual style for this staging as "Russian Constructivism -- abstract." He showed little command of it. The press release indicated he hadn't much background to justify making this challenging material his directorial debut, his academic study having been focused on "architecture, philosophy" and schizophrenic research in psych wards. He is listed as having "worked on" productions by Theodora Skipitares, but that seems an inadequate preparation for so daunting an enterprise the first time out.
Jovana Millay Brown's costume design, itself, seemed a bit schizoid. Half of the cast seemed to be in contemporary clothing, others in period uniform, others in odd combinations of the two. One character was clad in what appeared to be a mix of dominatrix, Russian winter wear, and '60s mod couture. Leslie Shih's set design was a mixed bag: modular units that could be moved and reassembled made good use of planar possibilities. But the color scheme worked against the design. Imagine if Mondrian had worked in only black, brown, white, and gray. Catherine Moy's lighting was otherworldly and would have well served a production with that consistent concept.
Of the cast, the standout was actually Paige Snell as Fedya. Although the reason for casting a woman in a male role was never made clear, she achieved a good sense of a withered soul fatalistically fading away until there was nowhere to go but up. The rest of the cast seemed to have been misdirected by Brown into somnolent, overly literal readings that made the didactic metaphysics in Tolstoy's work overwhelm the subtle psychology and character observation that usually palliates them. Save for Damien Buzzerio's well-spoken Prince Sergius, they all seemed positively indifferent.
This is an exceptionally good text and deserves another mounting. But, the next time it should be by a troupe with a greater (or any) appreciation of its thematic density and stylistic demands. Say, the Cocteau Rep?
Copyright 1996 John Michael Koroly
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