Pity the nightstands of culturally avid New Yorkers. In preparation for this year’s Lincoln Center Festival, these flimsy furnishings must bear the weight of copious background reading: the 800-some pages of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Demons, the nearly 1,000 pages of Eiji Yoshikawa’s Musashi, a tome or two on the Battle of Stalingrad, G.H. Hardy’s inscrutable A Course of Pure Mathematics, and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema, which, at only 200 pages, must seem a mere Marxist trifle. Surely many side tables have collapsed beneath the strain.
Happily, bedroom furniture got a breather over the weekend when hundreds of Gothamites toted their copies of The Demons—most frequently the Penguin Classics edition—to Peter Stein’s 12-hour adaptation of the novel. The books gathered in the Financial District, sped across the harbor to Governors Island, bounced along a seaside path, reached the theater, and were shoved under seats as the long day began.
Stein, making a very rare New York appearance, has never shunned durational performance. His triumphs include a 10-hour Wallenstein and a 20-hour Faust. In his native Germany and throughout Europe, he has established a reputation for acute textual sensitivity, Brechtian economy, and psychological acuity. Scholars have described Stein’s methods as somewhat akin to scientific dissection—pulling the particular play apart to see what makes it work. But unlike most anatomists, he then puts the organism back together again—and makes it live.
Here, Stein has chosen to wield his theatrical scalpel not on a play, but on a novel. The Demons, published in 1872, interleaves its considerable gloom with scenes of terrific comedy and romance. Based on a true-crime sensation of a few years earlier, in which a cabal of revolutionaries had murdered one of their members, the book focuses on a radical cell nestled in a provincial town and its corrosive effects on the entire populace. There’s plenty of material for a play here. A 12-hour one, apparently.
I’d like to say you don’t feel that temporal burden while watching Stein’s production, but you do. The hours do not pass leadenly, but neither do they fly by. When Stein emerged to announce the halfway mark, wild cheers erupted. A Russian novel performed in Italian with English supertitles can’t help but distance the audience, and the first section in particular, in which some two dozen characters are introduced and much exposition is accomplished, is very heavy weather. (Speaking of weather, let us applaud the first-rate and very nearly soundless air conditioning system.) But once you understand who’s a nihilist, who’s an atheist, and who’s the son of whom, the pace quickens and alienation lessens, though it rarely disappears entirely.
While most theatrical adaptations of The Demons focus almost exclusively on the adventures of the dissolute aristocrat Nikolay Stavrogin (Ivan Alovisio), newly returned to the district, Stein broadens his vision and running time to include nearly all the novel’s subplots. In some ways, this is a very good thing; it offers a much richer social context for the narrative, provides the excellent supporting cast with more material, and flaunts his staging genius. From crowd scenes to those featuring one or two characters, all are gorgeously rendered—a hokey lighting and fog effect, like something out of Les Mis, is perhaps the sole misjudgment. But such a panorama renders the action more episodic than purposive and lets some of the various thematic threads fall slack.
When an adaptation of The Demons was first proposed, at the Moscow Art Theater in 1913, an outraged Maxim Gorky worried that this “propaganda of sadism” would prove too compelling onstage, that its nihilism, safe between the covers of a novel, would seduce and infect those gathered in an auditorium. There’s little danger of mass conversion in Stein’s production. There are too many competing philosophies, too many arcs, and a certain coolness to much of the action. Also, Alovisio seems to lack the unique charisma that makes Stavrogin so attractive and destructive; his sociopathic cohort, Pyotr Verkhovensky (Alessandro Averone), is even less compelling.
Though you will hardly succumb to their revolutionary ardor, it’s still a privilege and something of a pleasure to cede the contemporary world for so long and sojourn in 1870s Russia instead. The experience is much akin to spending the day on the sofa, gorging yourself on the full run of a Masterpiece Theater miniseries—Bleak House, say, or The Forsyte Saga. (That Stein steps out to introduce each of the play’s seven parts only enhances the PBS analogy.) Your own sofa has its advantages: There are no supertitles, no lines for the toilet, no man in the seat in front of you intruding into your leg space. But here is what your living room—unless it is very large—lacks: another several hundred spectators who, like you, will brave murder, suicide, and anarchy, then emerge blinking into the New York evening, glazed and a little stiff, but more or less contented and unscathed.
Murder and suicide, though rather less anarchy, also occur in the late Hisashi Inoue’s Musashi, also offered by the Lincoln Center Festival. And yet Musashi, as directed by Yukio Ninagawa, is a comedy and an exceedingly gentle one. The historical Musashi Miyamoto—a remarkable swordsman and the author of The Book of Five Rings, a self-help text for Samurai—is now best known as the central character of Yoshikawa’s cumbersome novel. Perhaps its 1,000 pages provide insufficient incident, as Ninagawa’s play picks up where Yoshikawa’s book ends, during the duel between Musashi (dreamboat Tatsuya Fujiwara) and his arch rival, Kojiro Sasaki (the expressive Ryo Katsuji). Though Musashi leaves Kojiro mortally wounded, the two reunite some years later at a Buddhist retreat. Kojiro demands a rematch, but the presiding monk demands a grace period during which he and his co-religionists will try to convince the warriors of the futility of bloodshed.
If Ninagawa’s staging is somewhat less rigorous than Stein’s, it is also more whimsical and engaging. The first act is particularly vivacious thanks to a tango sequence, an inspired series of pratfalls, a song about an assassinated octopus, and a gorgeous scene change in which 20-foot trees appear to dance. In the second act, the supernatural rears and the play’s three-and-a-half-hour length is occasionally felt. (Though compared to The Demons, this is a mere one act.) But for a play about pacifism, it is violently entertaining. How novel.