Angst and Teeth-Gnashing; Dostoyevsky Plays at Theater STU

Everyone loves Dostoyevsky.

This has never been totally comprehensible to me, in fact, but I can partly rationalize it to myself by saying that Dostoyevsky is a seductive combination of 19th-Century melodrama and epic dimensions, a kind of cartoon version of Russian morbidity (in the same way that Chagall paints a cartoon version of the Russian fantastic imagination), psychological introspection and good, old-fashioned kitsch.

Consider the famous scene of the old money-lender getting hacked to pieces by Raskolnikov in “Crime and Punishment,” the part most people remember of this very popular book. In any American film, this would be considered kitsch of the highest order. But because Dostoyevsky serves this up in a kind of quasi-philosophical, proto-existentialist sauce (the last key to his phenomenal popularity amongst the literati), the kitsch is generally tolerated – even adored! – as a kind of means to an end. When Dostoyevsky’s monstrously-long books become condensed, and thus distilled, into theatrical productions or films, their flaws tend to become glaringly apparent.

Such is the case, alas, with the new four-hour adaptation of “Biesy” (translated variously into English as “The Possessed” or “The Demons”) performed by the once-great STU Theater at al. Krasinskiego 16-18, and directed by Krzysztof Jasinski.

The plot here is quite a complicated one, even by Dostoyevsky’s standards, but in brief it is the story of a nobleman convinced he is possessed by the spirit of a young girl who was raped, and goes to see an exorcist. His family home, meanwhile is filled with scandalous and unlikely situations – a madwoman is found outside church begging and is brought back to the house for tea, her drunk “brother” (a google-eyed and very energetic Dariusz Gnatowski) blunders in and makes a scene, a stately gentleman is “given” a young servant-lady as a present from his dying wife. Lots of angst and teeth-gnashing ensues.

STU is charging a jaw-dropping 100 zloty a ticket for this “super-production,” in part because many of the actors and actresses have been featured in super-popular Polish television series and soap operas, and in part because the Voskresinnia Orthodox Choir from Ukraine has been engaged to “give this performance the dimension of a spiritual experience” (thus enthuses the press release).

And indeed, the first ten minutes of the performance, consisting of no more than a young boy dusting the audience with incense, and the choir singing and holding candles, has a compelling beauty about it. Thereafter, however, the choir is used mainly to underscore emotions that are already histrionic to begin with. In fact, the overwhelming impression when a 500-page Dostoyevsky novel is presented “in a nutshell” like this, is of a 19th-Century costume drama/soap opera with a slightly macabre edge.

There is some imaginative use of the very small space, with different props often popping out of the wings on a kind of flat trolley, and the acting is solid and sometimes even very good indeed (Andrzej Rog makes for a very fine grizzled exorcist, and the younger actors pitch in some very enthusiastic work), but all this is little more than the garnish on a very conventional piece of meat.

As for the philosophical sauce I mentioned, to continue our bad culinary analogy, Dostoyevsky’s religious and philosophical writing comes across as a bit uninspired in his books, but in this kind of summarized form it can be downright embarrassing.

The lead protagonist, Stavrogin, at one point (provocatively!) asks the exorcist in a woebegone voice: “Can a man believe in the Devil without believing in God?” and the audience has little alternative but to slap their foreheads and groan.

At one point the elderly Stavrogin stops the tea party and begins a sermon in defense of art and beauty that is so drearily conceived and contrived that one begins to question if Dostoyevsky genuinely valued art and beauty himself (although in fairness this may just as well be a weakness of Jasinski’s adaptation, or the actor, who is not among the play’s best).

In general, whenever the script makes a foray away from soap-opera intrigue and into the dark woods of spirituality or philosophy, Dostoyevsky’s weakness as a writer becomes most apparent. All that is left to do is to encourage you to take your 100 zloty elsewhere, donate it to a charity where it will do some good. And go in search of your “spiritual dimensions” in the churches, and your theatrical pleasure at another theater.

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