One must enter the strange world of Robert Montgomery's Subject to Fits with some care, for all manner of absurdity -- both beautiful and hideous -- flies in from the rafters (sometimes literally) over the course of the evening. Called "A Response to Dostoevsky's The Idiot" by the playwright, the challenging, sometimes hilariously weird landscape of the 1970 script is currently meeting its creative match in Gregory Boyd's tightly directed production now running at the Alley Theatre. The explosive results make for an evening of theater that is as confounding as it is liberating.
The characters Montgomery's lifted from the great Russian's story will be familiar to anyone who's read The Idiot. The oddballs at the center of the tale include poor Prince Myshkin (Jeffrey Bean), the sweet fellow who suffers from epilepsy and who just wants to be kind in a world full of unmitigated cruelty. Driving him a little bit crazy is Natasha Fillipovna (Elizabeth Heflin), a fiery beauty who dresses in a leather corset and enjoys nothing better than flitting from drooling man to drooling man. She is the woman of Myshkin's dreams. Unfortunately, Natasha spends her time swaying her handsome hips at every available man she sees as she flirts with vicious energy. The most diabolical of all the characters is Paryfon Rogozhin (David Rainey), a dagger-wearing man of the world who befriends Myshkin only to lead him into some terrifying situations. He also adores Natasha, though his passion is hardly healthy.
Starting from the time he leaves a sanitarium where he's been staying for epilepsy, the strange play follows Myshkin through his difficult, oftentimes absurd friendships with an assortment of Russians who treat him very badly. They call him an idiot, speak to him with sarcasm and enjoy watching him suffer even though he's as tender as they come. No matter that this nest of ninnies are all in fairly desperate straits themselves. Ippolit Ivoglin (Chris Hutchison) is dying of consumption. Lebedev (James Belcher), a sycophant of the first order, confesses all manner of disgusting behavior. And Aglaya Yepanchin (Elizabeth Bunch) is a "brat" who likes nothing better than sticking out her tongue at her rivals. These rude puppies can't be kind to anybody, much less a man who doesn't bother to scare them into sweetness. They are cruel for sport and too silly to imagine any other behavior.
In his "response," Montgomery has managed to dance Dostoevsky's writerly imagination into the stuff of very clever theater of the absurd. The dialogue moves fast and furiously, overlapping and collaging into a storyline that reveals itself slowly, in an utterly nonlinear fashion. It will take many scenes before anyone who's not familiar with the novel begins to make sense of the characters' relationships, so the whole experience is quite like a puzzle's image slowly appearing as the disparate pieces fall into place.
Adding to the wondrous fragmentation is Takeshi Kata's extraordinary set. It feels both darkly Russian and strangely spiritual. The black-and-cream-checked floor is framed by sweeping, ruby-colored drapes, and enormous leaded-glass doors move up and down the Neuhaus thrust stage so that this whole world feels like it's in a constant state of flux. Doors open up on the stage floor; set pieces fly down from above; and a life-size, mutilated Christ figure lies in repose across the back wall of the stage. This Christ is a sort of metaphor for poor Prince Myshkin and all the misery that being kind will bring a man in this life.
Boyd's wild theatrical style lends itself beautifully to work like this. He often keeps his ensemble sitting on the stage watching what's going on at the center. He pulls an almost childlike petulance and willfulness from these strange beings who are trapped in the dark elegance of Dostoevsky's gray world. They sing at odd moments; they bicker and swoon; they are nothing if not contradictory at every step. In the end, the story suggests that there is no happy place for kindness in our world full of arbitrary and ceaseless pain. But reveling in our very bad behavior brings an almost exuberant joy.
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