(“Dostoevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor” plays at Central Works February 23 through March 30.)
Central Works is one of the most artistically ambitious theatre companies in the Bay area, completely devoted to the development of new plays in a collaborative process between playwright and company that is extended over many months. This intense workshop approach results in productions that are always of interest, sometimes ravishing, sometimes missing the mark. I always leave Central Works productions feeling stimulated and challenged. The company commands respect. They enjoy a strong following among a discerning group of theatre goers and all of their productions seem to find an enthusiastic audience. I am a fan, and yet I often respond to their productions with considerable doubt in spite of my admiration.
It seems to me that this work occasionally falls victim to what might be called the “Masterpiece Theatre Syndrome”. This is characterized by productions that are beautifully acted, given the best of production values, yet somehow seem to become lost in a generalized tone of high seriousness that can be more style than substance. A strong historical context, an intriguing intellectual problem, the trappings of debate, religious symbolism, political references — all this, though well and good in themselves, can sometimes seem more like indicators of depth than the real thing. It is the intellectual equivalent of valentines and puppy dogs, substituting powerful and evocative symbols for genuine emotion.
Many will disagree with this criticism. Complex language, the play of ideas and truly powerful symbols are rare enough in our theatre that their mere presence can be wonderfully satisfying to certain audiences. I get that. But I think it is possible to do even better.
The current production, “Dostoevky’s The Grand Inquisitor” has excellent performances by actors Julian Lopez-Morillas and Michael Gene Sullivan. Lopez-Morillas’ agonized inquisitor is particularly well realized. The old Inquisitor vacillates from senile confusion to hope, from religious ecstasy to sexual ecstasy, from sadism to masochism, from God to the Devil. Michael Gene Sullivan is also very fine in multiple roles, particularly that of a mysterious and compassionate stranger who might be the second coming of Christ. His skill in communicating understanding, insight and compassion with silent looks and gestures is quite startling.
I was moved by the range of ideas on display, and the depth of emotional life portrayed by these two fine actors. In the end though, I remained confused as to the import of the play and the content of what was communicated other than a vague feeling that the themes were meant to be profound.
I have to finish this review with an expression of frustration. I think this play will be fascinating for some, irritating for others. I have to admit that I feel as though I didn’t quite “get it”, but I remain uncertain whether this is a fault in my viewpoint or a flaw in the production, or perhaps a bit of both. I think audiences who value intellectual drama and are willing to make a considerable effort to understand will want to see this play. And I certainly look forward to continue seeing challenging productions from Central Works.
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“Dostoevsky’s ‘The Grand Inquisitor” adapted by Gary Graves, produced by Central Works. Director: Jan Zvaifler. Costume: Tammy Berlin. Sound: Gregory Scharpen. The Grand Inquisitor: Julian Lopez-Morillas. The Other: Michael Gene Sullivan.
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