The Fringe offerings I encountered on Sunday the 22nd took a distinctly backward-looking turn in comparison to most of the shows I’ve encountered during my first week at this year’s Fringe. One show, An Idiot, takes its inspiration from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot, while Veritas tells the gripping story of the 1920s gay witch hunt at Harvard University.
Both shows provided lively social commentary by placing modernity under the microscope lens, each directed with an eye for the parallels between the past and our present condition.
by Jeff Tabnick after Dostoevsky, directed by Eric Nightengale
The Kraine Theatre
Billed as “a modern retelling of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot,” playwright Jeff Tabnick’s similarly titled An Idiot uses the Russian literary mode to place today’s social and political climates under examination. Making judicious, pointed use of modern references (particularly to the Internet), the play delicately (and wisely) straddles the line between adherence to the aesthetic of its source and establishing itself as a modern update.
The plot is something like this: Prince Myshkin, a religious man, finds himself on a flight to America with Rogozhin, a foolish man who’s bringing his inheritance to the beautiful Natasya’s birthday party in the hopes of wooing her once and for all as his wife. Myshkin quickly usurps Rogozhin’s influence over Natasya, however, establishing a dangerous love triangle, one that’s interrupted by Natasya’s adoptive father (and erstwhile lover) Totsky, who’s running for the U.S. Senate, as well as the general’s daughter Anna, and the physically violent Rogozhin himself.
The play, which includes occasional metatheatrical flourishes, presents its characters’ flaws for all to parse and examine. By the play’s second half, the linear narrative of the piece has, rather excitingly, broken down. Epanchin, the general, reveals the play’s (or, well, the novel’s) ending, leaving us firmly in the hands of the happy band of actors to finish telling the story. Dostoevsky himself (voiced by James Jenner) even makes an audio appearance, relating the tale at hand to his own life experiences.
Jeff Tabnick’s smart script is amply supported by Eric Nightengale’s direction, which wisely keeps the piece from seeming either too obtuse or too irreverent. Despite some strange costuming from Karl Ruckdeschel, which places the setting somewhere between the nineteenth century and now, the production is a whole is polished and thought-provoking, a testament to the production’s well-considered approach to updating Dostoevsky’s source material.
Jonathan Todd Ross is a standout as Myshkin; there are outstanding supporting performances, as well, from James Jenner as pervy old Totsky (perfectly emblodying the stereotype of the lecherous older authority figure) and Toby Wherry as Myshkin’s eccentric, ill roommate Bob.
By the end of the play, an audience is left wondering who are the idiots – the believers or the non-believers? Who are the hypocrites? And just who, in the midst of all the world’s uncertainties, is fit to govern? For a lively, literary discussion of relevant issues with a period-bending twist, An Idiot is a safe bet with considerable rewards.
Bottom Line: SEE IT, especially if you love literature
Remaining Shows: SAT 28 @ 4
by Stan Richardson, directed by Ryan J. Davis
My second show of the day, Veritas, made headlines earlier in the week for being the first show at this year’s Fringe to sell out its entire run prior to the commencement of performances. Focusing on the gay witch hunt at Harvard during the 1920s (when terms of endearment like “my sweet” and “dearie” were all the rage with the queers on campus), the play mostly lives up to its hype despite a rather conventional script from playwright Stan Richardson.
The play begins with the death of Cyril, a homosexual student at Harvard whose untimely death provides the evening’s inciting incident. After Cyril’s brother Lester finds some of his classmates’ rather explicit letters to his younger brother, he confronts the University, demanding an inquisition be held into the presence of homosexuality at Harvard.
Richardson economically introduces us to the young Harvard men involved in the witch hunt in question; we find out more about them through a series of brisk, funny scenes in which we watch them relate in their natural habitat. They practice lines from Shakespeare and Aeschylus and hold soires – racier, queerer versions of Parisian salons, full of bitchy talk and lurid behavior.
The mood soon darkens as Cyril’s death is revealed to the young characters and the implications of Lester’s accusations begin to sink in. A series of interrogations are staged with a high level of theatricality; as each student takes his turn speaking, the others – in unison – speak as the inquisitor. Their questions are mostly the same – about masturbation, homosexual relations, Freud, and Havelock Ellis. As each student testifies, the tangled web of shame grows more and more elaborate. As each student names subsequent names, the list of those implicated grows, culminating in the expulsion of many of those involved.
The central flaw of Richardson’s concept is the lack of thematic development that occurs throughout. Though the story of these nine Harvard men is intriguing, it’s unlikely that an audience’s view of the situation at hand will be significantly altered over the course of the evening. The play is, in essence, a problem play in this regard, though the dialogue on hand is well-crafted and often entertaining.
Director Ryan J. Davis adds an invigorating visual flair to the proceedings. Particularly notable are the representation of the late Cyril as an empty suit, the presentation of his coffin-less funeral procession, and the encroachment of a band of young homosexuals, doused in pink light, upon Lester’s personal space. On the whole, Davis turns an above-average script into a dynamic, well-paced theatrical evening.
The cast is uniformly strong as well, especially Morgan Karr as Ernest Roberts, Justin Blanchard as Stanley Gilkey (one of the students pronounced “innocent”), and Eric Nelson as Edward Say. There are no weak links within the group; they operate well as a Greek chorus of sorts and have a playful sense of camaraderie as a unit.
Unfortunately for the production as a whole, the play’s final section seems somewhat misconceived. The two Harvard men who were acquitted, Gilkey and Lumbard, recount their lives’ successes, having learned to “play the game” and tell “selective truths.” I suppose this conclusion is meant to demonstrate how far we’ve come since the days when suicide and reckless behavior seemed the only methods of coping with one’s homosexuality. Ultimately, however, we’re left with the conclusion that these men’s lives (and deaths) were not in vain, a noble assertion but one that sheds no new light on the situation at hand.
Perhaps if the acquitted, or even Cyril himself (we never learn that much about the man whose death sparked such controversy), were better-established presences within the text earlier on, a stronger connection would have been drawn between the guilty and the innocent, the tormented homosexuals and those willing to blend in. As it stands, however, Veritas remains a valiant, flawed effort, hinting at the search for truth inherent in its title without presenting audiences with a satisfyingly complex conclusion.
Bottom Line: SEE IT, with reservations
Remaining Shows: TUES 24 @ 4:15, FRI 27 @ 5:15, SAT 28 @ 8
For more information about the New York International Fringe Festival, visit fringenyc.org.