If you want a textbook illustration of how not to turn a novel into a play, you couldn’t do better than “The Brothers Karamazov,” currently running in rep at the Stratford Festival.
The problems begin with the initial choice of material. Although it has been attempted before (most notably by Alec Guinness), one has to ask why anyone thinks Dostoevsky’s complex 1,000-plus-page story would make a stageworthy vehicle.
True, there’s a certain amount of mystery surrounding the question of who killed the boorish patriarch of the Karamazov family, but that’s not why the book endures.
It’s the way that the Russian author gets inside the heads of his characters, allowing us to explore their philosophical and spiritual anxieties, that gives this classic work its stature.
To try and compress it all into two acts is nothing short of suicidal. Even if most of the plot makes it through the transition intact, it’s going to wind up looking like a series of crib notes for someone who doesn’t want to bother with the complete novel.
The second problem is the choice of adapter. Jason Sherman is best known for edgy, contemporary dramas like “Patience,” in which his cynical wit and Mamet-esque dialogue can be seen to great effect.
The shotgun wedding director Richard Rose had forced between Sherman’s style with that of Dostoevsky is a most unhappy one. Sherman is unable (or unwilling) to write period speech. Consequently, we get clinkers like “He’s uber-bad”, or people discussing “ulterior motives” decades before Freud. And there’s also a fair bit of Sherman’s trademark profanity, which seems out of place here.
And while Sherman tries to come to grips with the complexity of the male characters, he reduces the females to a collection of shrews or sluts that diminish the book further.
Rose keeps the action moving with a series of bustling ensemble-style transitions that owe a lot to Trevor Nunn and John Caird’s RSC staging of “Nicholas Nickleby,” a debt all adaptations eventually find themselves paying.
The cast do what they can with the episodic material, but only Jonathan Goad, as the alcoholic Dmitry, succeeds in making a lasting impression. The shallowness of Dana Green’s sexpot Grushenka and Michelle Giroux’s strident Katerina are more typical of what’s amiss with this doomed-from-the-start production.