Theater review: An Evening of Peter Brook at the Broad Stage
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The chief pleasure of “The Grand Inquisitor,” the first part of a Peter Brook double-bill running through Sunday at the Broad Stage, is the majesty of Bruce Myers’ voice. A human Stradivarius, he lends exquisite vocal color to what is essentially a reading of the most famous chapter in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” the story of Christ’s disastrous return to earth during the Spanish Inquisition.
The actor’s lush caress of vowels and precise choreography of consonants may be a touch too melodious for “Fragments,” the Beckett portion of the bill that includes five short pieces Brook co-directed with Marie-Hélène Estienne. But working alongside Hayley Carmichael and Yoshi Oïda, Myers gets the opportunity to demonstrate the fluency of his physical instrument in the more fully staged half of this touring production from C.I.C.T./Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris, the place where the 86-year-old Brook, one of the most influential of 20th century auteurs, has long conducted his theatrical “research.”
Adapted by Estienne, “The Grand Inquisitor” is detached from its place in the harrowing Russian novel. Ivan, the intellectual brother, is no longer relating his “poema” to Alyosha, his spiritual sibling. The tale of Christ’s appearance in Spain and his subsequent imprisonment by the elderly Grand Inquisitor, who has witnessed the stranger’s miracles and fears losing his own authority, is told in a straightforward fashion. Much of what is presented is the cardinal’s elaborate theological justification for organized religion’s rejection of the Messiah, punctuated by Christ’s silent acceptance of mankind’s choice.
Minimally staged in New York in 2008, “The Grand Inquisitor” has been stripped down even further for Los Angeles. For all intents and purposes, the piece could have been presented at the podium of an auditorium in a public library, except that it’s unlikely that any reader would possess Myers’ entrancing rhetorical skill. Sitting behind a music stand in casual dress, Myers, a veteran of Brook’s international company, combines the verbal dexterity of a John Gielgud with the humanistic depth of someone who has performed in (and been transformed by) such Brook landmarks as the “The Mahabharata,” “The Man Who” and “The Conference of the Birds.” “The Grand Inquisitor” was originally presented as part of a religious trilogy that included “Tierno Bokar” and “The Death of Krishna.” Paired with Beckett shorts, the work lends the production a less spiritual but no less metaphysical resonance. The enigma of life, the desperate groping for meaning, the weakness of our corporeal lot, the guilt over our frailty — these Dostoevskian motifs are indeed echoed by Beckett, albeit in a comic vein that finds in slapstick the ideal emblem of humanity’s confounding condition.
In remarks reprinted in the program, Brook notes that Beckett, tarred with being “despairing, negative, pessimistic,” has been terribly misunderstood. Not that he doesn’t peer “into the filthy abyss of human existence,” but “his humor saves him and us from falling in.”
Brook proceeds accordingly with a lighter touch, concentrating on the pratfalls and the surreal spin of language and allowing the brooding existential business to take care of itself. Why bother to philosophize onstage when a bit of miming, as with “Act Without Words II,” can demonstrate the absurdity so much more vividly by simply lowering a goad on two players (Myers and Oïda) sleeping in sacks?
There’s nothing ponderous even in Brook’s handling of “Rockaby,” the piece in which a woman seemingly rocks herself to death. Carmichael certainly has the same natural pathos of Billie Whitelaw, who originated the role, but the staging is brisker than usual, more relaxed. Instead of a rocker, there’s a banal chair. Brook is still seeking to economically create what he famously called Holy Theatre in an empty space.
This isn’t the most precise rendering of Beckett I’ve encountered. (The actors haven’t had time to settle into the Broad, though they are nevertheless hypnotically encapsulated in magnificent glows by lighting designer Philippe Vialatte.) Yet experienced in quick succession, these shard-like pieces (the others are “Rough for Theatre I,” “Neither” and a delightful “Come and Go” performed in colorful drag) have a cumulative force.
Set against the forbidding backdrop of “The Grand Inquisitor,” the tumbling Beckettian metaphors bring home the universal ache. The darkness is momentarily made visible.
An Evening of Peter Brook: “The Grand Inquisitor” and “Fragments,” The Broad Stage, 1310 11th Street, Santa Monica. 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday. $45-$120 . (310) 434 3200 or www.thebroadstage.com Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes