Audience participation in the theater provokes the kind of vehement reaction you get when the question of adding anchovies is raised: Some view getting into the act as a slimy intrusion into an otherwise pleasurable act of consumption; others relish the bold ingredient.
The latter should make its way to the Foundry Theatre’s tediously fascinating K.I. From “Crime,” one of renowned Lithuanian-born director Kama Ginkas’s theatrical takes on Crime and Punishment, adapted by his son Daniil Gink. A kind of Slavic Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the play is an encounter with Katerina Ivanovna (K.I.), a minor character from Dostoyevsky’s novel whose drunken husband is crushed under the wheels of a carriage, leaving her and their three children in desperate straits.
From the appropriately industrial dishevelment of the Freight Entrance/ Chashama Theatre “lobby,” the audience is ushered up a flight of narrow stairs into an antechamber that would give Kafka nightmares. Suddenly, like a human jack-in-the-box, K.I. (Oksana Mysina) bursts through a door, hair flying, wearing a shabby overcoat, clownish men’s shoes, and a well-worn cardboard sign announcing her plight. Her bright eyes survey the crowd. She wants something. And she’s pissed.
Let’s face it. Confrontations with disturbed homeless people are the kind of situations New Yorkers try to avoid (discreetly, with the requisite liberal guilt). But this isn’t some corridor in Penn Station—we’re stuck, and we’ve paid for the privilege.
From K.I.’s pleading and invective, delivered in vehement Russian and a smattering of English, we learn that we’re being invited to a memorial dinner party for her husband. Some of us are cast as irritating guests referred to in the novel; others as potential sympathizers who are shown mementos of her self-described genteel past. Just when we’re starting to worry about what kind of evening this could turn into, K.I. exits, door slamming, and then reappears with a young boy. Now she’s roping her children into the act. How better to punish society for its indifference than by forcing us to regard the depths to which such nobly bred offspring are fallen?
K.I.’s children offer her a convenient outlet for her despair—like us, they’re useless, but at least she can hit them with impunity. Ginkas finds something interesting here, a kind of grotesque punning that comes close to the wild and wrenching extremes of the novel. On one hand there’s K.I.’s stoic and statue-like son, Kolya (Eugene Vovk, projecting the genuine weltschmerz of someone four times his age); on the other, there’s her huddled younger daughter, Lida (Bridget Clark), who is hauled across the floor in a burlap sack-cum-sled, an ironic semaphore of Slavic suffering. It’s hilarious and awful at the same time, and for a moment we’re absolutely absorbed, forgetting our role in the spectacle.
Ultimately, though, Ginkas isn’t interested in seducing our imaginations—he’d rather badger them. Whatever each theatergoer’s instinctive reaction is to being implicated becomes the real subject of the evening (as opposed to the grim particularities of K.I.’s disappointed history). The problem is that once we’re in on the conceit, Ginkas doesn’t do much with our uneasy awareness of the game. He presents only limited variations on the scenario—more insults to the audience, more shoving of children—and the event droops and flattens, no matter how violently Mysina insists on thrusting life into it. If anyone could raise the dead, this powerhouse actress would be a good bet. Her whole being is a worldview under siege: She’s innocence careening into existentialism, an angel on a puppet string, Pippi Longstocking waiting for Godot. But you can’t help wondering where she could go if she were cut loose from us and took on someone her own size.
In the end, Ginkas shows us just that, offering an image that confirms he can pull out the metaphorical stops when he’s of a mind. During K.I.’s final moments, a white ladder drops from the ceiling, an apparent celestial invitation. She grips the rungs like a lover, stroking the ladder fiercely and shrieking to the heavens to let her in. She’s finally found her real scene partner—God, death, everything invisible that the theater exists to give a glimpse of. Wherever you come down on the question of anchovies, it’s a sequence of raw poetry you’re unlikely to forget.