Friday, February 2, 2018

There's a Bear in My Vodka

Field Guide -- Yale Repertory Theatre -- Thru February 17

The cast of "Field Guide." All photos by Joan Marcus

Theatre of the Absurd may be an outdated term, but its spirit appears to be alive and well at Yale Repertory Theatre, which is currently offering the world premiere of Rude Mechs’ “Field Guide,” a somewhat surreal take on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov.” The one-act evening has the feel of a graduate seminar on Russian Lit with the students and professor all on LSD. If you’re looking for linear coherence in your theater-going experience, don’t hold your breath as you settle in to watch “Field Guide.” However, if you can go with the flow, or flows, and simply accept, say, a Russian bear doing a stand-up comedy routine, you’re in for an evening directed by Shawn Sides that will surely generate a loft of post-curtain conversation.
Lowell Bartolomee as the Russian Bear.

After the delivery of the usual pre-curtain “Do’s and Don’t’s,” (that seems to have been recorded by Kermit the Frog), a door opens house right and six characters, all wearing white parkas, tromp up onto the stage. Five disappear back-stage; the sixth, Hannah Kenan, who will play Grigory and Katya, stands in front of the curtain and begins a stand-up routine. If nothing else, this lets you know that you will be called upon to readjust your expectations, a task you will be charged with throughout the evening.

Kenan exits, the curtain rises, and we are into Dostoevsky land, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof. The set, compliments of Eric Dyer, consists of large, tan shapes – mostly rectangular, though there is one shape that looks like a wedge and another that towers above the rest, a wormlike configuration that could have escaped from the pages of “Dune.” Over the course of the evening the set “elements” will often rearrange themselves. Why? That’s open to interpretation, as is much of “Field Guide.”

With the initial reveal of the set we meet Dostoevsky’s main characters: there’s Fyodor (Lowell Bartholomee), the bibulous father, Alyosha (Mari Akita), consumed by spiritual rapture (the character often levitates), Smerdyakov (Robert S. Fisher), Fyodor’s bastard son, Ivan (Thomas Graves), the pompous philosopher, and Dmitri (Lana Lesley), smitten by love for Katya. Their relationships, and detestation of the father-figure, are often outlined by Kenan, who seems to be running the seminar.
Thomas Graves as Ivan, explain the "Grand Inquisitor"

Familiarity with Dostoevsky’s novel is helpful but not mandatory. However, if you’ve ever puzzled over the justly famous “Grand Inquisitor” chapter, Ivan’s summary mid-way through the play is perhaps the best, and funniest, exegesis you will ever come across. There are other set-pieces that are equally enjoyable, including a scene where Dmitri is trying to cajole Fyodor into giving him his inheritance – Dmitri rushes from character to character multiple times offering analyses that would serve well in a Spark Notes entry.

Then there are moments when you willingly watch but are unsure of what you are viewing and its import. Chief among these is an interpretive dance sequence late in the play performed by Akita that is both emotive and evocative but defies interpretation – perhaps it is Alyosha going through a dark night of the soul. Your guess is as good as mine. There there’s the aforementioned Russian bear stand-up sequence – yes, it’s about the difficulty dealing with fathers, but it lacks focus and just seems to, well, end with a whimper.

Perhaps the most head-scratching moment is the play’s conclusion, a coup de theatre of sorts that has the Karamazov family sharing what looks like a “last supper,” followed by – well, why spoil the reveal. And then, Dmitri appears to deliver a final stand-up routine but, Lesley breaks character, gives her own name, and, as Lesley, makes a dead-pan, Sylvia-Plath-like comment about her father’s death. It’s chilling and discomforting. And then, well, given what now dominates the set you just know what the Dmitri character will do to end the play.

To a certain extent, “Field Guide” defies description. There are moments of high seriousness, followed by moments that could have been lifted from a Marx Brothers film. Perhaps a close scrutiny of the script will reveal the connections between the stand-up routines and the Karamazov story-line, perhaps not. There’s a sense that some of what the audience is offered is done just for the hell of it. Maybe it would all seem perfectly logical if, when the audience is seated, each member is offered a tab of LSD. After all, Disney’s “Fantasia” is purported to be much more enjoyable if you are one toke over the line. In any event, whatever your interpretation of the goings-on, you will certainly come away knowing that you have had an experience. What have you experienced? Well, go out for a post-play glass of Chardonnay and discuss.

“Field Guide” runs through February 17. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to  

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