Yale Rep presents world premiere of ‘Field Guide,’ based on ‘The Brothers Karamazov’
While the country anxiously awaits word on the extent of Russia’s manipulation of our last general election, it’s immediately clear that former Soviets have directly influenced our recent theater. Last year’s “Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1912,” an improbable yet impressive musical drawn from Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel “War and Peace,” proved that Broadway audiences would embrace a stylish, musically complex adaptation, if not sustain it for a multiyear run.
On Feb. 1, Yale Repertory Theatre officially opens its world-premiere production of “Field Guide,” created by Rude Mechs, clearly toiling under the influence of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s magnum opus “The Brothers Karamazov.” For the company members of Rude Mechs, a collective based in Austin, Texas, opening night is the payoff for a commission Yale Rep granted in 2014.
“It’s been a long three years,” said director Shawn Sides, punctuating her comment with laughter. “In the beginning, we just start doing things not knowing that we can’t.
“We adapted ‘Lipstick Traces’ in 1999,” she said, referencing Greil Marcus’ 500-page history of the last century through art. “That was also harrowing, but it was pretty fast.”
Since 1996, Rude Mechs has created 30 works, many of them inspired by or genuinely adapted from source material. It’s fair to say that “Field Guide,” which began previews Jan. 26 and continues at Yale Rep through Feb. 17, is the company’s most ambitious creation yet. Considering that Dostoyevsky reportedly took two years to complete his tome, it would seem that Rude Mechs encountered some rough sledding during its three-year endeavor to bring the novel — considered by many the greatest accomplishment in world literature — to the stage.
“Though we started working on the piece in 2015, we worked on other projects, too,” said Lana Lesley, who plays Dmitri. “We put things down and pick them up again, over and over.”
While Rude Mechs duly credits company member Hannah Kenah for the text of the piece (“Hannah is boss of the script,” said Lesley), “Field Guide” evolved as the creation of Mari Akita, Lowell Bartholomee, Kenny Chilton, Madge Darlington, Eric Dyer, Robert Fisher, Aaron Flynn, Thomas Graves, Kevin Jacaman, Kirk Lynn, Graham Reynolds, Brian H Scott, Dallas Tate, Sides and Lesley.
In addition to Lesley, the cast consists of Akita (Alyosha), Bartholomee (Fyodor), Fisher (Smerdyakov), Graves (Ivan), and Kenah (Grushenka, Katya, Grigory).
Sarah Woodham (costumes), Scott (lighting), Reynolds (original music) and Fisher (sound) comprise the design/creative team.
Lesley says Rude Mechs doesn’t have a set process for developing a project. Or, as Sides quipped: “We often say that every time we start a new process, it’s a matter of apologizing for the last one. We address all of the things we messed up the last time we worked together.”
In this case, Lesley said, the company members started by reading “The Brothers Karamazov,” for the first time in many cases.
“We then divided the book up,” Lesley said. “We all did our own adaptations. We found an adaptation and we all rewrote that. We normally don’t do text improvisation when adapting, but we did on this. We’re a physical company and we do lots of physical improvisations to help us figure out the staging of the piece.”
Sides agreed: “That’s sort of how our company rolls generally, but in this one in particular, it’s very physical. I’d say that the story we tell is about 90 percent physical. Maybe 80. I’ll back it down to 80.”
The company uses its source material more for structure than transposing text verbatim from the page to the stage.
“We’ll use the skeleton and put our own stuff on it, and, hopefully, the skeleton will disappear,” Lesley said. “With ‘Brothers Karamazov,’ it never disappeared. It’s obviously ‘Brothers Karamazov’ — we do not shy away from the fact that we’re playing Dmitri and Ivan and Alyosha. (Yet) it’s not an adaptation, per se.”
“And then we threw in some stand-up comedy,” Sides said. “Nothing says heavy Russian Lit like stand-up comedy!”
The stiffest challenge the company faced, Sides said, was “trying to be minimal with the words. That, and the sheer length of the book. We’re still developing the piece right up until the first performance.”
Now that Lesley and Sides can see the opening at the end of the tunnel, would they hop this mile-long freight train again?
“If I knew what the end would be, I’d definitely do it again,” said Lesley. “I’d just do it more efficiently.”
“No!” said Sides with another laugh. “I know I’m supposed to say ‘yes,’ but if I go back in time, I’ll just tell myself, ‘ya know, maybe not. Maybe not The Brothers K.
“Though,” she said, “Lord knows it’s taken us on a very long and interesting journey nonetheless.”