Brook No Evil

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:12

    An intoxicating mood wafts down upon the audience during the final minutes of The Grand Inquisitor, the first new production by legendary director Peter Brook to arrive in the U.S. since the inscrutable Tierno Bokar, a meditation on tolerance, in 2005. A dramatization of a cerebral swath of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the piece, co-presented by New York Theatre Workshop and Theatre for a New Audience, leaves you simultaneously energized and paralyzed by fear, qualities that would normally work in opposition to each other. Seeing The Grand Inquisitor during the same week we elected president a man that some call a political messiah, this tale of a mandarin of the Spanish Inquisition interrogating, mocking and lambasting Jesus Christ isn’t just timely, it’s ironic.

    Brook, who is 83, was recognized as a wunderkind director in the 1940s. He has spent his remarkable career not only as one of the supreme practitioners of the theatrical form but also as a thinker-theorist of depth and boldness. Through the work of his Centre International de Recherche Théatrale in Paris, where Brook has lived since 1970, he has consistently investigated ways to convert abstract dramatic notions into action. In his sunset years, he seems piqued by the same idea that attracted Samuel Beckett late in life, and which British playwright Caryl Churchill, in her recent plays, seems eager to toy with: Extreme minimalism as a catalyst for maximum audience effect.

    The stage of New York Theatre Workshop, for example, appears vast beside the taut white square in which The Grand Inquisitor occurs. The title role, played by a mainstay of the Brook cadre named Bruce Myers, conducts his cross-examination of Jesus entirely within this space as Jake M. Smith, a young actor and film documentarian, keeps his back to us—the distant son of God. For 55 minutes, the dour Inquisitor plows through the headiest underbrush of Dostoyevsky’s prose, a minefield of provocative observations about man’s use and misuse of religion as an agent for moral behavior.

    From the modern viewpoint, of course, the Inquisitor can hardly claim a moral mantle: At the start of the play, he tells us that we’re in Seville and that he’s just burned to death a group of heretics. Myers, who resembles the American classical actor Herb Foster, now begins moving through Marie-Hélne Estienne’s adapted text in a voice festooned with sweetness, daring us to listen not to the meaning behind the statements and arguments his character puts before the mute Jesus, but to fall enraptured to the melodies of the words themselves, to the siren song of unstinting faith. It’s all wonderfully subversive.

    But it’s not the point of the piece. Indeed, there are substantial segments of the play that are dry, talky and tangential. Until Jesus rises, that is, and crosses toward the Inquisitor. Smith is so light of foot that all those feelings of energy and paralysis are conjured up in the audience rather instantly. When Smith is standing beside Myers, Brook has him perform a gesture so minimal, yet so powerful, that it validates the mind, heart and soul that the Inquisitor has laid so bare, also defusing the undertone of mad fury that has punctuated so much of his monologue up until this point. It’s a moment of theatrical consecration that works on us subtly—though it’s bizarrely undermined as the actors return to offer one of the most abrasive curtain calls I’ve ever witnessed. Perhaps this, too, is all about irony, as we leave the theatre and head into the night, wrapped in an ecstasy of musing and reflection.

    -- The Grand Inquisitor Through Nov. 30, New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St. (betw. 2nd Ave. & Bowery), 212-460-5475; $20-$75. --