Peter Brook has been parting the thickets of Eastern mysticism for so long, it’s a bit disconcerting to see the great guru turn his attention to Christian existentialism, in the form of this stark rendering of “The Grand Inquisitor” passage from Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov.” As delivered by a magisterial Bruce Myers lecturing a mute Christ, the harsh but brilliantly argued critique of the bedrock positions of Christian theology lands with a shock.
Technically, it doesn’t get more basic than this. Slightly raised platform, couple of stools, clarifying light and two men in black — one of them entirely speechless. Even the adaptation, by Brook stalwart Marie-Helene Estienne, feels elemental, compared to the more elegant Constance Garnett version.
The blocking of the action is simplicity itself. A youthful, passive Christ (Jake M. Smith) enters from the audience and takes a seat, from which he never stirs. Doubling as narrator and the Grand Inquisitor himself, Brook’s longtime collaborator Myers (“The Mahabharata,” et al.) enters briskly and keeps his movements minimal, nailing Christ and the audience alike with the sheer force of his low, commanding voice.
The gist of Dostoyevsky’s argument is that Christ, who has come back to earth out of compassion for the suffering of the victims of the Spanish Inquisition, has no right being pissed off at the harsh ways of the church he founded. The ruthless tortures of the Inquisition, he asserts, are no more than the logical extension of Christ’s misguided teachings.
Myers works his way through Dostoyevsky’s points with quiet authority, arguing in the gentlest of tones that, if Christ had made a more realistic assessment of man’s flawed nature — instead of endowing him with freedoms he is ill-equipped to handle — the world would not be in its current mess.
Poised to land on the head of a pin, Brook’s directorial focus becomes narrower and more pointed, until the jaw-dropping timeliness of Dostoyevsky’s message becomes inescapable. Given freedom, man does not govern himself wisely or responsibly, but pursues false values and enshrines (or is it elects?) cruel tyrants to worship. If Christ had just fed and clothed the ignorant masses and told them what to do, they would not be burdened with responsibilities they can’t handle — and his church would not be forced to resort to magic, mysticism and brute force to keep them in line.
As the Grand Inquisitor warms to these blasphemous themes, Myers raises his voice in barely noticeable increments until, at the end, it becomes apparent this daunting figure is actually begging Christ for forgiveness — not for being cruel, but for being right.