Fiercely committed actors in the Open Fist Theater Co.'s production of Dostoyevsky's "The Devils" sink their teeth into their roles by biting each other as a way to express rage about Russian tyranny and oppression. This vampire-like display of hostility and hatred is typical of the overwrought production, a three-hour-plus comedy-melodrama.

The fiercely committed actors in the Open Fist Theater Co.’s production of Dostoyevsky’s “The Devils” sink their teeth — literally — into their roles by biting each other as a way to express rage about Russian tyranny and oppression. This vampire-like display of hostility and hatred is typical of the overwrought production, a three-hour-plus comedy-melodrama that often achieves power despite portrayals so furiously over the top that we half expect the performers to collapse from exhaustion.

Show is set in a small town in 1870 Russia. Its first battle is dictated not by plot, but by Jeff G. Rack’s set design. Small, partitioned spaces are erected to represent eight rooms, and the characters enact their conflicts in generally claustrophobic spaces. Ingenious visually, the enclosures are a detriment to drama, keeping protagonists at a frustrating distance from the viewer. This is particularly true in the downstairs center room, where a card game begins the story and the players — conflicted members of a rebel group — argue, drink, strike each other and scream, almost as if they want to be heard beyond the suffocating space.

As it unfolds, Elizabeth Egloff’s tempestuous adaptation overcomes its tightly limited trappings and builds excitement. Although director Florinel Fatulescu has allowed many of his performers to carry on with hysterically bombastic abandon, he’s shrewd enough to keep his two male leads calm and balanced. Mark Thomsen excels as Peter, driven by a need to protest injustice that masks an amoral, nihilistic nature. Benjamin Burdick exercises similar restraint and brings shading to Nicholas, the leader who inspired Peter to challenge the system and now wants to walk away from activism.

“The Devils” benefits from lighting designer Dan Reed’s creation of a background fire, which persuasively emphasizes a hellish atmosphere of death and disintegration, and A. Jeffrey Schoenberg’s costumes dexterously differentiate the poor from the privileged. But these authentic details can’t completely hold together the events depicted in one of Dostoyevsky’s most densely populated, sprawling novels.

The characters that come off best include Dasha (Anna Khaja), the woman who loves Nicholas. Patrick Tuttle is impressive as weightlifting, suicidal Kirilov, fatalistically willing to accept $500 and assume blame for an assassination, and Jeremy Lawrence’s stuffy Stepan captures the soul of a well-meaning weakling who betrays Mrs. Stavrogin (Jennifer Pennington), his longtime friend and mistress.

As Mrs. Lembke, wife of the weak governor, Lembke (Rod Sell), Jennifer Kenyon is funny but such a caricature that she seems more appropriate for a Mel Brooks show or “Saturday Night Live” than Dostoyevsky. Kenyon and Sell engage in a confrontational faceoff so overdone it hits jarring notes of high camp, and Aaron Lyons’ frightened Shigalyov is one wounded, wailing howl.

Shawn MacAulay pulls genuine feelings from his role as a naive pseudo-revolutionary who fails to grasp the lethal consequences of rebellion and pays with his life. MacAulay has a beautiful moment when he cries of his disappointed but enduring love for Nicholas.

In struggling to be faithful to its sources — the complex book, a true-life trial of student dissident Sergei Nechaev, Dostoyevsky’s diaries and “freely created events,” “The Devils” becomes too crowded and staggers under the strain of dramatic exaggeration.

Director Fatulescu searches throughout for a tone, and moments of strenuous farce miss their targets because they rub shoulders too erratically and brutally with stark tragedy. His direction shines on the occasions when he trusts his instincts to be quiet and simple, as in the shaping of a haunting speech, eloquently delivered by Peter Vance:

“If somebody comes and says … it’s not fair that you can’t pay the rent or your wife is sick or your kid died, or that other guy’s got everything while you’ve got nothing at all, you can’t stop listening.”

This Dostoyevskian moment is more shattering than wild gyrations, so applicable to the personal dynamics of modern political unrest that it defines revolution and remains rooted in the mind after the show is over.

The Devils

Open Fist Theater Co., Los Angeles; 99 seats; $18 top

Production

An Open Fist Theater Co. presentation of a play in three acts by Elizabeth Egloff, adapted from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's "The Devils." Directed by Florinel Fatulescu.

Creative

Sets, Jeff G. Rack; costumes, A. Jeffrey Schoenberg; lighting, Dan Reed; sound, Drew Dalzell; stage manager, Mark Bate. Opened and reviewed April 2, 2004; runs through May 8. Running time: 3 HOURS, 10 MIN.

Cast

Peter Verkhovensky - Mark Thomsen Matryosha - Amanda Weier Nicholas Stavrogin - Benjamin Burdick Shigalyov - Aaron Lyons Virginsky - Peter Vance Stepan Verkhovensky - Jeremy Lawrence Ivan Shatov - Shawn MacAulay Liputin - Ben Shields Dasha Shatov - Anna Khaja Kirilov - Patrick Tuttle Mrs. Stavrogin - Jennifer Pennington Mrs. Lembke - Jennifer Kenyon Governor Lembke - Rod Sell Josef Blum - Alan Goodson Marie Shatov - Heather Fox
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