Neither the greatest nor the most exciting piece of theater you’ll ever see, Peter Brook’s production of The Grand Inquisitor is something else: a great moral event. This happens so rarely in the theater that it can only count as a blessing. Whatever sort of theater you prefer, you need, every so often, to clear the palate, to get rid of all the accumulated tastes and flavors and fripperies, simply to sit and think.
Dramatizing the famous reverie from The Brothers Karamazov in which Dostoyevsky imagines Jesus coming back to life during the Spanish Inquisition, Brook strips everything away. On a bare quadrangle of stage, under unchanging light, a man enters, dons a black robe, and speaks. Another, already seated there in an identical black robe, listens. The speaker occasionally moves around, providing some visual relief. At the end, there is a small interchange of actions, and an exit. Only 55 minutes.
You need no more than that, given the stature of Dostoyevsky’s parable. Bruce Myers may not be the most charismatic actor alive, but he is an actor of great concentrated power; habituated, after years of working with Brook, to projecting that power with maximal effect and minimal showiness. He speaks lucidly and softly, sometimes a touch too softly for New York Theatre Workshop’s wide space. The Cardinal Inquisitor, explaining the world to the returned Messiah whom he intends to have burned as a heretic, must display anger, resentment, grief, sardonic humor, and helpless despair. Myers unfolds them all with ease, never ranting or grinding in the ironies. The feelings occur because their sequence is part of the story, and that’s all there is to the matter.
The Inquisitor’s argument is simple and devastating. He has had Jesus locked up, he says, because human nature will never be ready to receive him, notwithstanding the great progress humans have made since biblical times. The crowd does not understand, and can never sustain, the idea of perfect love that is the central tenet of Jesus’s faith. It demands tangible rewards, like bread and miracles. Without these pacifiers, and a system of order to dole them out regularly, the common herd invariably lapses into violence and chaos. The Kingdom of Heaven, an idea not of this world, can never be more to them than the fleeting exhilaration of a feel-good moment.
Because Jesus overestimated mankind, the Inquisitor explains gently, the Church has had to do his work for him, using doctrine and the state’s armed might to keep the rabble in line, using ritual to make up for the miracles that are no more, and keeping starvation to a comparative minimum. Happy this way, the people can only get happier as the system improves. Their violent impulses get a safe outlet in the torture and execution of those whom the church designates as heretics; they will rejoice at his burning tomorrow. Only the elite, who must administer this mechanism for creating human happiness, truly suffer by it: They understand the great idea they have been obliged to cast aside.
Dostoyevsky’s nugget-hard concept resonates well beyond the Inquisition. Every elite and every established order since human society began have used some version of the Inquisitor’s argument. As Myers lets it unreel, almost tenderly, along its persuasive way, you can virtually see in the air the points at which it touches every infuriating aspect of the way our world is run. Grave but never heavy, at times even playful in its delicacy, the piece makes a welcome respite from theatrical business as usual, as well as an object lesson for those whose notion of political theater is confined to literalized atrocities and Sarah Palin impersonations.
Jesus, of course, gives no answer—at least, no verbal answer. A single action, at the end, gives the silent figure the spiritual equivalent of the last word; it does not change the Inquisitor’s mind. As we move into what will hopefully be a new political era (I’m writing this before Election Day), Brook’s piece couldn’t be more useful: a chastening reminder that the worst aspects of human nature don’t disappear. The solutions we arrive at for regulating them by mutual respect and mutual watchfulness are likely to prove healthier than those imposed from above by people who think their status magically empowers them to control everyone else’s life.
John Patrick Shanley has the sense, as a playwright, not to control his characters’ lives, which makes his new musical, Romantic Poetry (Manhattan Theatre Club), both maddening and extremely interesting, though people unfamiliar with Shanley’s chattily philosophic earlier plays may leave infuriated. Romantic Poetry‘s account of its six characters’ shifting ideas of love and commitment, toying affectionately with its themes, never settles down to anything you could call dramatic substance, let alone action.
Shanley fatally underrates the weight that song enforces on a dramatic moment, though Henry Krieger’s sweet score, eclectically ranging through a panoply of pop styles, struggles valiantly to keep the shift from speech to song fluid. Preaching, in prose, that life should be infused with poetry, Shanley hasn’t put any into his directing, stilted and marred by bad design decisions, nor into his cast, which, except for Patina Renea Miller and Jerry Dixon, seems equally stranded singing or acting. Saddest of all, Shanley’s lyrics, instead of shaping musical peaks that crystallize the poetic spirit he so genuinely loves, seem only continuations of his prose, salted erratically with rhyme.
Far cannier rhyming is among the appealing assets of Peter Mills’s Illyria at the Hudson Guild. Mills too wrestles with poetry issues: Like earlier attempts to musicalize Twelfth Night, Illyria can’t top Shakespeare. But Mills’s ingenuity with a patter song, a comic tango, or a plangent first-act finale can do much to override the shortfall. Likewise helpful are the little gleam of starshine projected by Jessica Grové’s Viola and the comic verve of Jimmie Ray Bennett’s Malvolio. Cara Reichel’s uneven production gets the material across competently, but Mills deserves better than mere competence.