Happy families are all alike, but every adaptation of War and Peace is unhappy after its own fashion. People have been struggling for three centuries to adapt novels to the stage, with variable success, but if ever there were a novel that resisted adaptation, surely it must be Tolstoy’s giant reflection on how individual lives get caught up in the sweep of history.
Prokofiev’s opera and the two giant film adaptations, Russian and American, give at best a bare outline of the story, with a few notable sequences in each. The only version that I can recall conveying a sense of Tolstoy’s grandeur was Erwin Piscator’s compact stage adaptation, played here memorably by the APA four decades ago; I can still see Keene Curtis’s malevolent smile as he mapped out, under the horror-struck gaze of Prince Andrei (was it Clayton Corzatte?), the deployment of toy battalions on Piscator’s tabletop-theater Battle of Borodino. And Piscator, capturing Tolstoy’s big ideas, smoothed out the density of detail that makes the novel’s characters such vivid presences a century and a half later. That’s the curse of adapting such a large work: You always lose either its overall sense or the texture that gives it life and richness. The two taken together are the sum of a great novel.
Director Pyotr Fomenko and his team, adapting Tolstoy for Fomenko’s Theatre-Atelier, from Moscow, must have thought that their scheme would get them safely out of the path of the novelist’s huge historical juggernaut. Fomenko’s tactic was to confine his ensemble’s work to the early chapters, in which the characters are introduced, and the pre-war situation and attitudes of Russia’s aristocracy laid out (the piece was subtitled “The Beginning of the Novel”): Fate, in these early chapters, slowly but inexorably moves the principal figures into position for the shattering events to come, with one of the novel’s two heroes, the earnest but honor-bound Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, leaving for the front to escape a home life and marriage that have become meaningless, while the other, Count Bezukhov’s illegitimate son Pierre, the quasi-Westernized divided soul, comes into his inheritance. Had the company focused strongly on them, or on any other aspect of the opening chapters, this would have been interesting, a sort of “Prologue to War and Peace” that might have packed a strong emotional punch for us New Yorkers, feeling as we do that the world is likely to explode any day, thanks to our idiot president and his greed-crazed lackeys, in an upheaval far worse than the one Napoleon brought to Europe.
Such a sustained vision, however, wasn’t what Fomenko’s ensemble provided. Like the actor-centered troupes that tried collective creation here in the 1960s and ’70s, his Theatre-Atelier tended to lose the thread of the source material in its fascination with actor-work, to which Fomenko repeatedly added the kind of directorial embroidery that invariably dilutes where it should heighten, making both the narrative and the individual performances seem mannered, repetitive, and emotionally static. The draggy preoccupation with scenes and characters that are omitted or glided over by most dramatizations got even draggier when pet moments from those scenes were repeated over and over. If you didn’t care to start with (and no one but a Tolstoy scholar ever has) about Princess Droubetskaya’s fears for her cadet son’s military future, you certainly couldn’t have cared less by the fourth time she recited them. Matters weren’t helped by the simultaneous translation, which rendered the text in a sloppy pidgin English, recited by one thick-accented voice clearly struggling to keep up with the actors. This is absurd in a city bursting with Russian Americans and Russophiles who can speak and write fluent English. (And the translation for Fomenko’s Egyptian Nights—see below—was even worse.)
It has to be said, though, that Fomenko has either an eye for good acting or a gift for actor training. Despite the grievous flaws in the piece—the stasis, the narrative jerkiness and lack of focus, the actorish exaggeration and directorial froufrou—everybody onstage was animated, centered, and purposive. They all seemed to know who they were and what they were doing at every moment—not always the case when an American or English cast tackles one of these large-scale efforts. Among the standouts were Galina Tunina’s elegantly hapless Countess Rostova, perfectly balanced by Polina Koutiepova’s vivacious, little-girlish Natasha, and Ilya Lyubimov’s stiff-jawed, dapper Prince Andrei. The latter’s “Nitchevo” as he went off to war was the only genuinely affecting moment of the evening—or would have been, if Fomenko hadn’t found excuses for repeating it till it lost all emotional point and became just another gimmick. Which is exactly the sort of thing that goes wrong when theater people start wandering in the forest of a great novel, and get fixated on the bark of individual trees.