Friday, May 20, 2011

The Long, Rewarding Journey to the End

Three hours in a stuffy room can actually be FUN.

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Jeremy Welter--clearly very thirsty

Dostoevsky’s classic novel The Idiot runs some 720 pages in length. So naturally, any stage adaptation of the work is going to have to be adjusted and distilled into something altogether more concise. Invariably things will get left out. It takes a great deal of courage to take a scalpel to one of the greatest works in the history of literature. David Fishleson doesn’t do a particularly courageous job of bringing that to the stage in his script, which debuted elsewhere several years back and is currently being staged locally by Off The Wall Theatre.

The printed program states that the show is 150 minutes long. With time for a 12-minute intermission, the thing ends up being the better part of three hours at the theatre. It’s a long show. The Off The Wall Theatre is a cozy, little theatre space—one of the smallest in town. This time of year, the heat in that space can get a little uncomfortable after the end of the first couple of hours, but much like a Russian sauna, this is a heat worth sweating through.

 

Invariably, there could’ve been quite a bit cut out of the script to make for a much more powerfully concise theatrical presentation. There’s a lot of dead weight here. Thankfully, there are more than enough powerful moments to keep the show interesting through its slower, more ancillary moments.

Eric Nelson stars as the title character—Prince Leo Nikolayevich Mishkin. He’s a man who has just returned from convalescing abroad from a form of epilepsy. He’s an altruistically kind and honest man the Nelson plays with respectable poise. All too often this type of character makes it to the stage entirely too flat to feel anything other than constructed, but without putting in a truly brilliant performance, Nelson does a respectable job of making the character seem real.

Jeremy C. Welter puts in a charismatic performance as Rogozhin--a man who is to become Mishkin’s rival as the plot gets going. Welter summons a pleasantly dark charisma for the role. The fact that his Russian accent sounds kind of authentic in places separates him from much of the rest of the cast, making him that much more likeable than almost everyone else here. He’ll deliver lines that don’t even sound vaguely Slavic in places, but his performance feels Russian throughout, which goes a long way for me.

(I studied the language in college and . . . it’s a highly phonetic language, so any accent that doesn’t feel right ends up being really distracting to me. There should be enough here to get across the right feel for most theatergoers, though. Actually, Nelson’s performance is a solid alternative. He doesn’t attempt any accent at all, allowing the character’s personality and motivation to take center stage . . .)

Karl Miller--looking cool and clearly overdressed

Karl Mller plays Lebedev--something of underling/servant of Rogozhin and later Mishkin. Sadly, his entire character could’ve been scrubbed without it making much difference to the overallthrust of the plot . . . probably would’ve shortened the play by something like ten minutes, too. Doing this, however, would rob the production of Karl Miller, who does an exceedingly good job of just looking cool here. . . and that actually does quite a bit of good in an Off The Wall production, where actors take up most of the space not actually occupied by audience.

The show’s Technical Director David Roper plays Ganya Ivolgin—a man in a business agreement involving marriage. It’s nice to see Roper (who is actually an excellent actor) taking kind of a prominent role here. He’s playing a character substantially younger than he is as an actor. The fact that he doesn’t look extremely silly doing this shows considerable untapped stage talent for someone who likely enjoys operating the lights better than appearing under them.

A couple of actresses get featured pretty prominently as well. Off The Wall newcomer Stephanie Staszak has the unenviable task of playing Nastasya—the woman both Rogozhin and Mishkin are taken with. She’s a very strong and vibrant character who has brief flashes of passion mixed with inner conflict and a reputation that far exceeds her. In the script she is arguably present just as much offstage as she is onstage, which gives the actress in the role a hell of a lot to try to live up to. Staszak, who has made memorable appearances in various Greendale Community theatre productions in the recent past, has some really striking moments onstage here. That she can live up to the character at all says a lot about her potential, even if her appearance here doesn’t quite resonate as well as past appearances with GCT. It is nice to see her beyond the GCT, though.

Jacqueline Roush and Eric Nelson

Also making a notable appearance is Jacqueline Roush as Adleaida, a woman who has become smitten with Mishkin. (The talented Sara Zientek makes almost a cameo appearance as her sister. It’s an interesting reminder of how talent gets displaced in a big, ensemble production—Zientek put in an amazing performance in Milwaukee Chamber’s Mauritius earlier this season.) Roush is absolutely stunning here as a woman who has fallen for Mishkin. The tender part of the character outshines her crueler side at the beginning of the play, but Roush seems to have a grasp for textured subtlety that would be a great deal of fun to see in a more central role at some point in the future.

This past season at Off The Wall, nearly every production has featured a large, kind of imbalanced cast with a few individuals performing well beyond the rest of them. While this can be as fun to watch as a truly balanced production, it’s nice to see a show with an ensemble that works well as an ensemble. It’s just too bad the thing has to be three hours long. The intimacy of a studio theatre can be amazing, but there are very few studio theatres that can remain comfortable for a full three-hour show. Still—with a solid ensemble and notably powerful moments, Off The Wall’s The Idiot is worth a little discomfort.

The Off The Wall Theatre’s production of The Idiot runs through May 29th. For reservations, call 414-327-3552.

 

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