Call them “shaggy bear jokes,” non sequiturs that clue us in to the kind of evening in store. Example: “So I ran into my hairdresser at a coffee shop the other day. I think she was pretty disappointed.” Or: “I think, apart from the fact that my hands shake, I’d make an excellent surgeon.”
Thus begins “Field Guide” at Yale Rep, an antic take on Dostoevsky’s 1880 “The Brothers Karamazov,” that includes actors in bear suits. Deconstructing the great novel without actually illuminating it, the production was created by an Austin, Texas-based theater collective, Rude Mechs (a riff on the bumbling Rude Mechanicals in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream“), who deserve credit for inventiveness if not for clarity. Audiences may come out scratching their heads although enjoying disjointed bits and pieces.
The multi-level novel revolves around the tyrannical Fyodor, patriarch of four sons: the rebellious Dmitry, the idealistic Ivan, the religious Alyosha and the trouble-making Smerdyakov.
All have a negative relationship with dear old dad and would love nothing better than having the s.o.b. croak. Which he does, assassinated, but by whom, since all have motivation? Is it Dmitri, most like his pop, yearning for Grushenka yet engaged to Katya, who’s also desired by the intellectual, skeptical Ivan? Could the killer be the resentful Smerdyakov? It’s certainly not Alyosha who spends time levitating, then dancing in an attempt to reach spirituality.
All of this is accomplished by stand-up comedy acts, a hot tub encounter and pithy remarks. We also get cardboard scenery, mainly boxes and something that looks like a silo, that slither about the stage, seemingly on their own. It’s a funny bit.
Meanwhile, snippets of the novel demonstrate its brilliance. “We are all cruel / We are all monsters / We all make men weep and mothers, and babes at the breast.” For Dostoyevsky, religion, politics and family help destroy the human spirit and we’re left with questions of ethics.
The cast, so comfortable with the material and each other, forms a superb ensemble. Mari Akita’s Alyosha, Lowelll Bartholomee’s Fyodor, Robert S. Fisher’s Smerdyakov and Lana Lesley’s Dmitri are excellent. Hannah Kenah is not only Grigory, Katya and Grushenka, she’s hilarious as a stand-up comic. Of them all, Thomas Graves comes off best as Ivan, the most rounded character.
For all its giddiness – buoyed by Eric Dyer’s scenery and Sarah Woodham’s witty costumes – “Field Guide” is directed by Shawn Sides with helter-skelter juvenility, matching the college humor level of Hannah Kenah’s text. But the true, though underdeveloped sub-text is more 2018 than 1880. The program describes father Fyodor as “Twice-married decadent sponge, clawing his way up the landowning class ladder. A buffoon, loves to ridicule others. Prone to insolence, misogyny and greed. Women should be especially cautious when encountering him.”
If that’s not a clear reference to America’s current ruling oligarchs, listen for the line, “How many Russian bears does it take to rig an American presidential election?”
Give Yale credit for world premiering a contemporary work of imagination. Those expecting an insight into “The Brothers Karamazov” will be unsatisfied. Those who throw caution to the winds will be amused. Possibly most theatergoers will be somewhere in the middle.