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Margaret Croyden

"The Grand Inquisitor "

The Grand Inquisitor
From Dostoyevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov"
adapted by Marie-Helene Estienne
Directed by Peter Brook
Presented by Theatre for a New Audience &
The New York Theater Workshop
79 East 4th Street NYC
Featuring Bruce Myers
Opened October 29, 2008
Reviewed by Margaret Croyden November 10,2008

We finally have had the good fortune to see a piece by Peter Brook, who has been absent from the New York scene for several years. As every theatergoer must know, a work by the great Peter Brook is a singular event that cannot be missed. To have seen his "The Mahabharata," "The Man Who," "The Tragedy of Carmen," "The Cherry Orchard," "Hamlet," "Marat-Sade" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is to have experienced a genuine genius of the theater.

So it may come as a surprise that Brook has forsaken big productions for simple storytelling on an almost bare stage. In his earliest book, "The Empty Space," he declared that his main effort in theater would be storytelling (not dominated by great pyrotechnical inventions) by actors on a simple stage who, by themselves, could make theater come alive. In "The Grand Inquisitor," he has carried out his long desired wish tell a story (without complicated theatrics) with actors who can live on stage who can be present, and just "be."

Dostoyevsky's "The Grand Inquisitor" opens on an almost empty stage. There is little to see except a chair, a small bench and a cross. The walls are covered with brown wood and on both sides of the stage are open doors that look like black holes evoking Doomsday. A grey haired man with a short grey beard dressed in a dark robe (Bruce Myers) walks to his spot. He tells us we are in Spain during the Spanish Inquisition, the church's murderous war that annihilated thousands of people (mainly Jews) and skeptics who were thought to be enemies of the church. The grey haired man is not only the narrator but The Grand Inquisitor. Benign looking, soft spoken, and polite, he will confront and argue with his opposite, the silent young man, Jesus, who sits with his back to us, listening intently. From then on, the Inquisitor (the devil, or the forces of evil incarnate) asks all the questions and answers them as well. But he never gets a rise out of the silent young man, who never moves yet we can feel his presence.

The Inquisitor holds forth: he says because Jesus believes in man's goodness and man's power to make a free choice, Jesus will be betrayed. Man is rebellious by nature, he argues, therefore he can never believe in Jesus' miracles or in the idea of free choice. The Inquisitor challenges the questions (and choices) put to Jesus in the desert, presumed to be the underpinnings of Christ's teaching. For example, people choose bread, he argues, not freedom, despite Jesus' dictum that man cannot live by bread alone. And so through the mouth of the devil-Inquisitor, a certain ironic truth enfolds: mankind cannot change; he accepts evil and waits for someone to worship. By implication, the Inquisitor proclaims that Christians and the church have created wars and killed each other rather than cooperate with a community of similar beliefs. His conclusions, presumably, are that mankind as well as the church are irredeemable.

Which makes the Inquisitor the protagonist, the one who predicts man's weaknesses. No matter what choices are offered, Man will chose the wrong ones; free choice is a mirage. Man awaits a miracle that might help him but that never materializes. Ironically, the Inquisitor's logic is plausible, his predictions that mankind will never make correct choices has actually been born out by the violent history of Christianity and its church. Therefore Man, he claims, is doomed to ignorance, suffering, and hopelessness. All the time, Jesus remains silent; he offers no argument but as he leaves the scene he plants a kiss on his opponent. Is that Jesus' answer?

That Dostoevski was thought to be a believer makes it difficult to understand why he describes (perhaps accurately) the devil's predictions of man's fate and, by implication, condemns Jesus and the Catholic church. "Go and come no more" the Inquisitor tells Jesus--famous lines that dismisses the second coming.

Bruce Myers, the only man on stage talking, has a hard job. He must narrate the story and, as the Inquisitor, ask all the questions and give all the answers. Rather than ranting or playing "the evil" prosecutor, Meyers speaks in a melodic, pleasing voice and he never slips into cliches. His tone has a mild feel as though he is a laid-back intellectual, having an important discussion with another intellectual.

Though the stage is austere; a certain aura hangs over the atmosphere; an important event is unfolding before us. This is Brook's way: a story evolves on an open stage alive with important questions, unexpected answers and enigmatic forces that demand attention. In the end, one is left mystified, an appropriate emotion for Dostoevski and his ambiguous story. And Brook has directed it accordingly.

Clearly, this play is different from most offerings this season. Not only does it raise important questions still relevant today but it dramatizes these questions with simplicity and a certain beauty. It is sort of refreshing to see an intellectual piece of theater, a welcome change from a season of cheesy revivals.



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