Classic novel comes to life in Off the Wall show

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Jeremy Welter and Eric Nelson in Off the Wall Theatre’s production of “The Idiot.”

Jeremy Welter and Eric Nelson in Off the Wall Theatre’s production of “The Idiot.” – Photo: Courtesy

Even in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s time, bad things happened to good people. Based on the narrative in Off the Wall Theatre’s stage adaptation of the Russian author’s novel “The Idiot,” which opens May 19, perhaps the only place a saint can be safe is in a sanitarium.

The Milwaukee company’s adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s tragic comedy ratchets the drama, humor, pathos and even music to high levels common to Russian literature, according to artistic director Dale Gutzman. He also believes a stage version of the 19th century Russian classic may be the best way to experience it.

“A stage version lifts the essence of the books and presents them in ways to which people can relate,” Gutzman says. “They’re part soap opera, part romance and lots of social and cultural drama. Most of all, they’re meditations on who we are, what life is about, our reason for being and our obligations to each other.”

“The Idiot” chronicles the social journey Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin (Eric Nelson) undertakes on his return to Russia after four years in a Swiss sanitarium. Prince Myshkin has epilepsy, but he is also naive, trusting and full of generosity and goodness. These are characteristics that isolate him from St. Petersburg society, earning him the scorn of those around him and his “idiot” sobriquet.

As corrupt members of all classes whirl around him, the fair Prince Myshkin finds himself caught between his affections for beautiful Nastassya Filippovna (Stephanie Staszak), a fallen woman and now paramour to the dark, worldly Parfyon Rogozhin (Jeremy Welter), and Aglaya Yepanchin (Jacqueline Roush), the beautiful, innocent daughter of a distant relative. The pot boils around the various love triangles, resulting in conflict, betrayal and, ultimately, a death that changes the lives of the remaining characters.

Scholars have labeled “The Idiot” as a classic struggle between good and evil, identifying Prince Myshkin with Christ and Rogozhin with the devil. The pair is described, respectively, with light and dark references and contexts throughout the novel. What’s more, “Rog” in Russian means “horn,” a coincidence that lends credence to the analysis. But Gutzman finds it too simplistic, citing Dostoyevsky’s interpretation of the duality in each of us as the driving force behind the characterizations.

“Even Prince Myshkin causes bad things to happen by trying to be good,” Gutzman says. “He shows both Rogozhin and Nastassya their potential, and he corrupts them even more because they cannot stand to be good.”

The love among the four principles tends to be equally distributed among men and women and men and men, a reality that is more cultural than sexual, Gutzman says.

“Men in that part of the world are generally closer to each other than they are to women, and their love is just as passionate,” he explains. “The men don’t have sex, but the famous scene at the end of the book and play has the two men spending the night together under blankets hugging and holding on to each other to ward off the dawn and the rest of the world.”

Off the Wall has chosen to play “The Idiot” as a tragic comedy rather than a melodrama, an interpretation Gutzman said he learned working with theater companies in Russia and the Ukraine. Music from Russian Gypsy violin pieces and Rachmaninoff fill the air, creating a mood very much like that of imperial Russia.  A row of old fashioned footlights line the front of the company’s small stage to support the illusion that the 14-member cast is telling a story.

Gutzman believes “The Idiot,” written as an emerging middle class in Russia looked westward for inspiration and freedom, has relevance for today’s political environment.

“Our day of world domination is over, and there is huge class struggle going on,” Gutzman says. “Conservatives still in power use their money and their might, they say, to keep order, but it is really to ensure their economic and cultural superiority. I believe there will be a revolution in America, and we can learn from the history of other nations how to cope with this reality.”

Off the Wall Theatre’s production is designed to provoke such thought. “To be exposed to Dostoyevsky’s thinking and feeling and to learn from it in the safe world of art is a gift we cannot refuse,” Gutzman says.

Off the Wall Theatre’s production of Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot” runs May 19-29 at 127 E. Wells St. Call 414-327-3552 or visit www.offthewall.com.

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