From Russia With Pralines
| ||Photo by Leslie Scott|
| ||Donald Seldom (Tim McDonough) and his Mother (Keith Foster)|
A savvy adaptation and a skilled creative team bring the biting wit of Dostoevsky's "A Disgraceful Affair" to life.
By REESE THOMPSON
What stayed with me long after watching Sara Jeanne Asselin‘s stage adaptation of Dostoevsky “A Nasty Story” (or, as other translations have it, “A Disgraceful Affair”), was how easily she seemed to negotiate, indeed translate, the experience of reading Dostoevsky into a theatrical experience with very little sacrificed in the process. Throughout the performance, all the rhythms, all the social and psychological insights, all the richness and complexity of Dostoevsky moral universe were everywhere evident. Even Dostoevsky biting and astute character assessments were translated stylishly into biting and astute asides, delivered by Ms. Asselin (as the narrator) and Dostoevsky himself, here played uncannily by Brian Belcinsky.
The idea to have both Dostoevsky (or “Fred” as he’s called here) and Ms. Asselin guide us through the story is an inspired choice. Not only did it serve as a functional solution to dramatizing the fierce psychological insight for which Dostoevsky is known, it also preserved the bemused, often amused, third-person voice for which Dostoevsky is also known. In this way, Ms. Asselin gives props to the guy who wrote the story in the first place (a smart move), as well as giving the audience a glimpse of the oddly necrophiliac collaboration at work. She even lets us in on the process of making Russian names more accessible (ergo Fyodor becomes Fred). On a larger scale, her “freely based” adaptation, which takes the story out of Moscow and transposes it into an undefined, somewhat contemporary setting, employs Ms. Asselin’s own command of comedic language to highlight the farcical aspects of human behavior. If the play has at times a wordy texture, it also has at least the spark of real wit and intelligence.
|A NASTY STORY|
|Written by: Sara Jeanne Asselin.|
Directed by: Melissa Firlit.
Based on A Nasty Story by: Fyodr Dostoevsky.
Cast: Sara Jeanne Asselin, Brian Belcinski, Danny Dempsey, John Forkner, Keith Foster, Abe Goldfarb, Tim McDonough, Sammy Tunis.
Production stage manager: Sarah Ford.
Related links: Official site
220 East 4th St. between Ave. A and B
Fringe Festival 2008, Aug. 8-24, 2008
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As an amateur Russian lit nerd, who has for years declared to skeptics that Dostoevsky is actually funny, it was gratifying to see that Asselin did not buy into the predictable assumption that Russian literature and Dostoevsky in particular is all bleakness and cruelty. Indeed, there is a specific kind of Russian humor, exemplified by Dostoevsky, which is both dark and whimsical, a combination that can be difficult to swallow. None other than Prokofiev, in his youthful adaptation of Dostoevsky “The Gambler,” has ever seemed to me to tap into this. Ms. Asselin, and her accomplished director and cast, not only tap into it but also amplify it, and make it their own.
Johnny Pralines (Danny Dempsey) is a member of the upper classes who takes pride in believing himself to be “down with the downtrodden.” He shows up unexpectedly at the wedding party of one of his lowly subordinates (Timothy McDonough), and subseqently clashes with the artists and bohemians there, as well as with himself. As a portrait of the self-congratulating liberal hypocrite, they don’t come any more extreme than Johnny Pralines. Over the course of the play’s 75 minutes, Johnny tries harder and harder to ingratiate himself with the “peasants,” determined to prove to himself his theory of humanity. It’s a brutal example of the hard divisions that class creates, and the presumptions of all concerned. And while it certainly paints a dismal picture, it has the benefit of having a ring of truth. As Ms. Asselin and her director, Melissa Firlit, have laid it out, it’s also a consistently smart and funny play.
Rarely does one have the good fortune to see a true ensemble cast, working as though lit by the same fire, moving as one complete and complimenting whole. This is really a credit to the smart and solid directing of Melissa Firlit, who was able to capitalize on the strengths of a uniformly strong cast. While I’m still not convinced that Big Band would ever be the party music of choice by peasants, Russian or otherwise, I did enjoy the ass-slapping conviction of the cast as they bopped around the stage. Two standout performances were Samantha Tunis’s hilarious turn as the mumbling bride, and Abe Goldfarb who brilliantly alternated from playing the office-sycophant to the curmudgeonly father-of-the-brid, sometimes within the same exchange. The highlight of the evening, however, must go to Timothy McDonough’s performance of the mazurka. The sheer absurdity of the moment was not at all out of keeping with the absurdity of Johnny Praline’s actions in the play.
| ||Rarely does one have the good fortune to see a true ensemble cast, working as though lit by the same fire, moving as one complete and complimenting whole.|
|AUGUST 23, 2008|
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