Peter Brook's Simplicity
Peter Brook's version of the "Grand Inquisitor" scene from Dostoevsky's "Brothers Karamazov" has been playing for a six-week (I think it is) limited run at the intimate New York Theatre Workshop in New York, across the street from La MaMa. This is a 50-minute monologue for the veteran Brook actor Bruce Myers, with Jake M. Smith in the mute role of Jesus, who is being inquisited, if that's a verb. The text is knotty and complex, and it comes to a stunning ending.
But what interests me here is my (it's all about me!) lifelong reaction to Brook, who is of course idolized worldwide. Not least by Harvey Lichtenstein, who presented him for years at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and designed a whole theater interior (the BAM Majestic, now the BAM Harvey) to Brook's specifications for his "Mahabharata."
Me, I have always found Brook deeply involving yet curiously blank. Compared to other theater visionaries, like Wieland Wagner or Robert Wilson or Ariane Mnouchkine, there is a disarming simplicity to Brook, a true minimalism, perhaps, that strikes some as miraculously refreshing and others, like me, as oddly undernourished.
In "The Grand Inquisitor," the key moments, like when the hawklike, robed man suddenly points downward to reveal his and the Church's true allegiance, are stunning. Many of the subtler directorial touches -- the hands, the inflections, the positioning of the stool on which the Inquisitor sits -- are deeply thoughtful, maybe from Brook alone but more likely from the collaboration between Brook and Myers; any great director lets great performers help shape the vision. But for me, there is a vague feeling of incompleteness at the end, like a delicious but unfilling meal.
That said, Brook's next project, according to Harvey, sounds fascinating. He will subject Mozart's "Magic Flute" to the same streamlining and compaction previously accorded "Carmen" and "Pelleas et Melisande." Even though Mozart died young, this is one of his very last works, and there is something autumnal about aging masters, like Brook or Bergman, taking it on. If I ever get my long-contemplated book about "The Magic Flute" off the ground, the timing should be perfect.
For an ongoing conversation and news reports about arts journalism, go to the blog of the National Arts Journalism Program, here.