Writer Robert Lyons and writer/director Kristin Marting want to invite you to a party inside a man’s mind. It’s an immersive performance event at HERE, and the other guests include characters from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. This is their third collaborative adaptation of a Dostoyevsky text, and I got a chance to read the script and speak to them about their vision for this production.
Erin Courtney (Rail): What a beautiful text! I love it. It reminds me of a libretto or a song in the sense that you have distilled so much meaning and experience into this one, deep lyrical thread.
Robert Lyons: It’s funny that you say that, because I do think of it as a long song. It is so condensed and rich and there is very little subtext. Most of what the characters say is what they actually mean.
Rail: This is your third collaboration adapting Dostoyevsky for the stage. Tell me about the first time each of you read Dostoyevsky and the impact his voice had on you when you first read his work. (I, for example, read Crime and Punishment as a Southern California teenager, and I thought I had finally found my home!)
Kristin Marting: I first read Dostoyevsky when I was in college. I took a semester long course focused on his work and had the utter pleasure of reading all of his books over four months. I was completely taken by his work, and that is when I first got the idea of adapting The Idiot for the stage. But it has taken me all these years to come back to The Idiot and to finally make this new hybrid work with Robert.
Lyons: I think I first read Dostoyevsky in college in a class about Existentialism that opened up a whole world of thinking for me at the time. But what I love is that he writes about every layer of the human condition: psychological, social, spiritual, and metaphysical. And it’s all in a mad fever dream, not some intellectual schematic idea. It’s like he’s almost not in control of it.
Rail: I think adaptation is a unique process, and we adapt something when we feel the need to experience the material in a new form. One of the definitions of adapt is “to make fit for”, or “change to suit a new purpose.” With Idiot what new purpose are you aiming for? Also, as you work towards your purpose, what boundaries, rules, or guidelines did you create for yourselves?
Lyons: Dostoyevsky creates such a massive world in his novels that the first step to adapting it is to identify the parts that interested us the most. You can’t put the whole novel on stage. Although we did try with The Possessed. The first read through of that was in Kristin’s living room and was over six hours long! That production ended up about three hours, I think. With The Idiot, I was attracted to the idea that the spiritual epiphanies the Prince has before his fits have given him access to a way of living in the world that is guileless and transparent. That doesn’t work so well when he comes into contact with other people! Connecting that thread to a lovers’ quartet where we see characters at their most obsessive and self-destructive allowed us to create a piece that juxtaposes those two ways of being in sharp contrast. We also knew we wanted to limit the play to these four characters which gave us a clear focus.
Rail: How did the two of you begin work together on the first Dostoyevsky project, and how has your collaborative process changed from project to project?
Marting: I had just reread Possessed and decided I wanted to adapt it. It was one of Dostoyevsky’s most political works, and I thought of Robert right away as an ideal collaborator. Robert read it and got excited about us working together on it.
On that first project, we used to sit in a park in SoHo with the actual book and read it out loud. As we went along, we would highlight text and cross out text directly in the book, then rip out pages we wanted to keep.
To make our first draft of Idiot, after reading the book independently and having a series of dramaturgical discussions, we narrowed in on our concept of focusing on only five characters. Then we went on a retreat at the Orchard Project, working off of different translations. We each did a first pass of different sections of the book, then swapped sections to make cuts and adjust language. It was an all-digital process. Our first reading was over three hours. After that draft, we worked together to make massive cuts, reshape each scene and cut one character to bring us to our quartet. Much later in our process, Robert works independently to refine and hone the language.
Rail: I love the musicality of this text. How do you envision the sound design?
Marting: The show is pretty much scored through with strategic moments of silence when we enter the mini-fits that anticipate the grand mal fit near the end of the play. In our earlier draft of the show, we went with four thematic motifs for our four characters. Where we headed now with “the party inside the Prince’s mind”, we have felt the need for greater fluidity and continuity. Our composer Larry Heinemann has been particularly inspired by Steve Reich’s work, Music for 18 Musicians. Leading up to the mini-fits and the fit itself, we layer sound and music to create the chaos we imagine inside the Prince’s mind: a train passing, claps of thunder, echoing footsteps, high chimes.
Rail: A theme that really struck me in your adaptation is how illness changes a person and makes them see the world in a way that a healthy person may not be able to comprehend. The presence of death and illness can make us hyper aware of life and make our senses heightened. The Prince cannot control when his “fits” intrude, and therefore he cannot contain the sublime:
PRINCE (to guests)
Just before my fits take hold,
somewhere deep in the darkness of my soul,
a spark ignites,
my brain catches fire,
and my mind and my heart light up
like a flash of lightning.
In this inexpressible,
all my anxieties, all my doubts, all my worries
are washed away
and I am filled with joy.
Filled with hope and reason and a
sublime tranquility. In this second,
my last conscious moment
(never more than a second).
I am somehow able to understand the extraordinary phrase “time shall be no more”.
And I have said to myself
clearly and consciously:
“For this moment I would give my whole life!”
Surely a single moment of such boundless happiness
is worth an entire life.
Rail: To the rest of the world, the Prince is ridiculous. His clarity/metaphysical understanding is too foreign and frightening so he must be ridiculed. Is this a theme that interests you in this production? I think it’s a wonderful theme to highlight because the act of making and watching theater is very much about investing in a moment that will be gone.
Lyons: Yes, for me that is the central theme! One of my favorite moments is when the Prince questions whether his illness has given him access to the highest state of consciousness or the lowest. If his epiphany is real or imagined. And whether in the end if that makes any difference. The Prince is ridiculed, but the characters are also drawn toward him. So he has a magnetic charismatic quality as well. That’s his paradox. People are attracted to him and afraid of him.
Rail: In what ways do you think the immersive staging and the surround video design will add to this metaphysical theme?
Marting: Our party concept activates the audience by casting them as society members whose presence exerts itself on the Prince and the other three characters, acting as voyeurs, witnesses, and confidants. As the audience surrounds the performers on all sides, characters relate directly and react to the audience as fellow guests who can be grasping, judgmental, sympathetic or cruel. We really wanted to make the audience to feel culpable and responsible by casting them actively.
The goal of the video design is to give us access to what is inside the Prince’s mind. Through careful manipulation of live camera, we use complex live-feed cinematography to reveal the world from the Prince’s point of view. Intricate projection mapping and carefully crafted surround sound score create seamless, almost film-like transitions while relaying events and enhancing character. As the Prince’s fit approaches, events fragment and narrative jumps until it finally culminates in a spectacular on-stage mystical epiphany that brings each production element, light, video, sound, score, text, and movement to a fevered celebratory crescendo, suggesting to the audience their own potential access to epiphanies of grace. Followed, of course, by the inevitable descent into the existential black hole.
Rail: Another theme I am interested in, in the play, is the internalization of the violence against women. Nastasya seems to accept her fate because she has been indoctrinated to see herself as nothing or as a destructive force, so when the Prince offers her another life she just cannot accept that as a viable reality. This seems like another type of illness.
Marting: All four characters are ill, all suffering from the pressures the corrupt society exerts upon them.
Both women suffer from the strictures and limitations that society places upon them and, despite their efforts, are unable to break free of those expectations and constraints. In Nastasya, this twisting punishment goes even further into her inability to live a life where she can act and be seen as a good person. In Aglaya, it ends with her fully adopting the values of the cruel society and finally rejecting the Prince.
Rogozhin is also tortured—despite having money (the pinnacle of power in this society), he is surprised to find he still can’t win Nastasya and is still looked down upon by others. This obsession twists him into violence.
The Prince is trying to live purely but, gradually, is pushed towards making choices that cause others pain and begins to pollute and rip apart his pure soul.
Idiot, conceived and adapted from the Dostoevsky novel by Robert Lyons and Kristin Marting, runs April 28 – May 21 at HERE. Text by Robert Lyons; Directed and Choreographed by Kristin Marting; Environment by Nick Benacerraf; Video by Ray Sun; Composed by Larry Heinemann; Lighting by Heanette Oi-Suk Yew; Costumes by Kate Fry. Performed by Lauren Cipoletti, Purva Bedi, Daniel Kublick, and Merlin Whitehawk. For tickets and further information, visit www.HERE.org.
ERIN COURTNEY’s plays include I Will Be Gone, A Map Of Virtue, and Demon Baby. She is a Guggenheim Fellow, a 13P, a member of New Dramatists and she teaches in the MFA playwriting program at Brooklyn College.