Any theater thinking about hosting a marathon along the extravagant lines of Peter Stein’s 12-hour adaptation of Dostoevsky’s “Demons” should consider this: It isn’t enough to stage the thing in an empty warehouse. To snare the necessary sponsors and desired aud, it really helps to secure a spectacular setting, as Lincoln Center does here by staging the event on Governors Island, situated in the middle of New York Harbor and affording such additional amenities as magnificent skyline views of lower Manhattan and a magical trip home — in the company of the performers — on the midnight ferry.
Even without the cry of seagulls sounding through the theater walls and closeup sightings of the Statue of Liberty on meal breaks, Peter Stein’s authoritative adaptation of Dostoevsky’s difficult (some scholars might say crazed) 1872 novel about the social breakdown in Russia in the years following the emancipation of the serfs, is an unforgettable experience in a theatergoing lifetime.
Although the production shows surprisingly little effort to artistically transform the cavernous cement-floored stage of its warehouse setting through more suggestive lighting and scenery, the drama confidently soars on the strength of its story, the vision of its director and the skills of its superb acting company.
The absence of scenic effects mostly undercuts the novelist’s contention that some palpable evil (the “demons” of the new English title) gripped Russia in the years following emancipation, infecting its inhabitants with such violently self-destructive impulses that they literally became “the possessed” (as an earlier English translation would have it). How else to explain the epidemic of plagues, arson fires, factory closings, worker riots, political anarchy, murder, suicide and insanity that have maddened the residents of Dostoevsky’s nameless provincial town?
Lacking that supernatural element to help explain their bizarre obsessions, the characters must live or die as victims of their own cruelly flawed humanity. And live they do, with heartbreaking conviction, as they blindly pursue their various immoderate passions.
As we learn from Anton Grigoreiev, the play’s wide-eyed but hapless narrator in Andrea Nicolini’s ingratiating perf, not even the town philosophers are immune to these irrational urges to harm themselves and the ones they love best. Even wise old Stepan Verkhovensky, the beloved revolutionary thinker played with eccentric brilliance by Elia Schilton, is going insane from his masochistic relationship with his patron, Maddalena Crippa’s enchantingly cruel Varvara Stavrogina.
More unnerving, Stepan’s circle of disputatious but thoughtful intellectuals has given birth to a breakaway group of raving anarchists led by his own son, Pyotr, played with fiery ferocity by Alessandro Averone.
Nor can the commanding Varvara control matters under her own roof. Her son Nikolay, he of the burning-coal eyes in Ivan Alovisio’s searing perf, has returned from his debaucheries abroad and seems intent on ruining every virgin in the village. Positioned as the centerpiece of the story, Nikolay is that familiar Dostoevskian hero, the suffering sinner condemned to agonize, repent and suffer far more if he hopes to be saved.
As other characters are carried away by their own fixations — on everything from political anarchy and philosophical nihilism to women’s liberation and Western fashion — they interact with increasing violence, until the bloody final scenes find most of them dead and the town in ashes.
Theatrical marathons have a different rhythm from plays of normal length, so the initial frustration involved in struggling to keep pace with the show’s sprawling plot and focus-shifting scenes gradually gives way to that Zen-like state of mind when everything makes perfect sense and you feel as if you know each of the characters personally (and can maybe even speak Italian). Stein’s directorial command is such that Zen comes quickly. And while the company’s decidedly Italian performance style of this very Russian material is initially disorienting, there comes a point when their frequent, graceful hand gestures seem perfectly natural.
And if you should happen to be standing among them on the midnight ferry, you might even tell them so.