BWW Reviews: THE JEWEL IN THE MANUSCRIPT
"The Jewel in the Manuscript" by Rosemary Zibart
Directed by Brian Hansen
The Adobe Theater, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Shows runs October 19-November 11, 20012
For tickets: www.adobetheater.org
Last night I attended a new play by Rosemary Zibart entitled " The Jewel in the Manuscript" at the charming and intimate space known as the Adobe Theater in Albuquerque.
This original show focuses on the relationship between Fyodor Dostoevsky and the much younger stenographer, Anna Snitkina, who he embarks in a relationship with in his last years. The device of the characters evolving affair allows the playwright to reveal many facets of Dostoevsky's life.
Early on in the show, Dostoevsky's character has a powerful, evocative monologue in which he recounts his time in front of a firing squad with "rifLe Pointed at my heart" The rituals surrounding his imminent execution turn out to be a ruse by the czar, an evil trick.
However, during the preceding moment, with death staring him down in the face, Dostoevsky recounts a sublime experience of focusing above the guns at the light reflecting off a golden church dome. His experience peaks as his body and soul fill with what he interprets as grace at the exact moment he realizes that his life will be spared.
Ms. Zibart's writing is honest; poetic at times and raw at others as she delves into the mind of a character who is as complex and multi-faceted as Dostoevsky. Like the characters the author himself wrote of, he comes across in the script as a mass of contradictions; brilliant, narcissistic, kind, vile, earnest, and compulsive all within the course of the show.
The character of Anna is a strong counterpoint to her lover and though she is religious and filled with a subtle light, she comes off as neither naïve nor overly pious.
One of the most interesting parts of the script had to do with some dialogs between the two about Christianity. This is a topic that can be a button pusher for many, including myself, but in this case it was a compelling insight into the thinking process of both characters who each symbolize the different paradigms of religion vs. spirituality. She with her earnest faith offered to her by convention and dogma. He, delving deeper into his own psyche and soul, needing a direct experience to either confirm or shatter his faith. Desiring rather to live embodying the teachings of Christ, rather than blindly following like the masses, or giving in to the temptation of existential atheism that had become a kind of status symbol for the Russian elite.
The script has been winning awards, and rightfully so. It is beautifully crafted and emotionally mature . I was deeply engaged with the storyline and the characters transformations from Act 1 to Act 2.
With such strong material to work with, one hopes that a director will build on this with a vision and eye to inspire strong and consistent performances in his actors. Unfortunately in the staging of this production, this did not happen.
The two leads, David James and Jessica Quindlen were well cast. Both are natural actors with depth and varied emotional range. Ms. Quindlen in particular is a notable stand out, with a physical resemblance to Scarlett Johanson and a subtle strength in her acting style. Overall, she does an exceptional job in an otherwise, inconsistent show.
However, the rest of the actors were flailing one way or another in their performances. This problem falls squarely on the director's shoulders. A good director must be always be fearless in his quest for emotional honesty and nuance. He must also be aware of how something is playing in a particular space. The smallness of the actual space of the Adobe Theater demands a style close to film acting, which means that restraint and subtlety are a must.
David James is obviously a generous actor with a powerful presence. However, he also appears to be vulnerable to "overacting" stylistically. Particularly in the first act, the "over the top", one note anger which he pounds the audience with on almost every line is exhausting and breaks any suspension of disbelief that audience would otherwise have. He seems to have confused constant outbursts of yelling and hysteria with the portrayal of an intense and passionate Russian.
This is where the director needed to step in and pull the actor back rather than pandering to these overindulgent antics. At the end of Act 1, Dostoyevsky's character has an epileptic fit. It would be a challenging scene for many actors to pull off. I appreciate Mr. James willingness to commit to it to the best of his ability. However, it was not wholly successful thus becoming excruciating for the audience members to watch.
Again, this is where the director, Brian Hansen, needed to step in and temper the performance. One does not want to leave his actor with his proverbial "pants down" onstage, especially in such a large and demanding role. The director must artistically and emotionally work on behalf of both the audience and his actors to make certain that both are protected from the aforementioned kind of experience.
The supporting cast also struggled. Most obviously Richard Boehler as Pasha, who for some reason I could not understand was prancing around stage in a bad wig wearing woman's boots and rolling his eyes in perfect "Valley Girl' style. As a pivotal character as well as one of Dostoevsky's antagonists in the show (the other is an unseen character attempting to manipulate Foydor's royalties for the next seven years) this was an enormous mistake. I have no idea why the Mr. Hansen would allow such a performance in the midst of the otherwise earnest show.
The technical aspects of the show were well done. The set itself was charming as was the layout of the space. The director did stage it well and there was a nice flow to the characters movement onstage. This is admirable especially when the audience is essentially surrounding the cast on three sides as is the case in the theater.
"The Jewel in the Manuscript" has enormous possibility as a show. I salute the Adobe Theater for making the choice to produce strong original theater. With clear vision in it's staging, it may manifest into a notable and enduring piece of theater.