Nastasya Filippovna

An Idiot’s tale, with a Russian tongue

A Moscow troupe's liberating adaptation of a great Dostoyevsky novel is a rare stage treat

Kalinichev (with match) and Kurilov, on a Dostoyevskian vigil.

Kalinichev (with match) and Kurilov, on a Dostoyevskian vigil.

“Nastasya Filippovna.”

The actor Mikhail Kalinichev, as Count Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin, repeats the name softly, musically, an almost-whisper of breath escaping his lips like an astonished bird. “Nastasya Filippovna.” Like everything he says in the play that bears her name, Kalinichev speaks it with a gentleness, almost a diffidence, that belies a firm core of commitment in Myshkin’s soul. And he speaks it with what I can only call Russianness, a subtlety of the tongue that seems impossible for a non-native speaker to emulate, because to get inside its music you have to be born to its twists and turns. What we hear in those two soft words – “Nastasya Filippovna” – is a great and complex culture that has both a terrible historical weight and a wondrous historical beauty.

On Wednesday night it was my pleasure to see the United States premiere performance of the Moscow New Drama Theatre’s long one-act play “Nastasya Filippovna” at Artists Repertory Theatre, which is co-presenter with the University of Portland. It’s a short run – it ends Sunday – and even on a very busy weekend of high-profile openings it’s well worth catching.

What I saw was an approximation of what this remarkable production is: an improvisation that for American audiences has been fixed into a set script. It’s a two-hander: Kalinichev shares the stage with Andrey Kurilov as Parfen Rogozhin, the count’s great friend and rival for the love of the title character. The story’s adapted from the final section of Dostoyevsky’s great novel “The Idiot,” the part when Myshkin and Rogozhin sit a curious and revealing all-night vigil in Rogozhin’s apartment while the body of Nastasya, whom Rogozhin has just murdered, lies unseen in the bedroom beyond. The two actors and their director, Viacheslav Dolgachev, spent many months memorizing the novel and working themselves inside its flesh, creating from it a pool of scenes: It’s spoken entirely in Dostoevsky’s own words, and entirely in the Russian language, but the actors ordinarily improvise how the scenes will be ordered. The play moves from beginning to end, but with a lot of switchbacks and flashbacks, including to scenes from earlier in the novel that help explain how things arrived at this sorry mess. Now and again the actors briefly take on the voices of other characters in the novel, including the volatile Nastasya Filippovna Barashkov herself, who otherwise is seen only as a disembodied dress slung over the furniture of the darkened stage, like a ghost that will not go away.

The Moscow New Drama Theatre’s production reminds me, in a way, of the great silent movies, and of watching good foreign movies in their own language. When you take something away, something else gains more importance, and so good silent movies have something of the poetic that modern film can rarely match; and watching, say, Kurosawa or Truffaut in subtitles emphasizes the quality of the camerawork and the animal aspects of the performers: the physical, nonverbal communications. Art relies not just on what is added to “real” life but also on what is taken away, and “Nastasya Filippovna” eliminates a lot. It’s performed without music – no underscoring to indicate pathos or melodrama – although there are minimal sound effects. It’s performed in shadows, with most of its light coming from a candle or a window-curtain occasionally opened to the outside. English translations are projected on a back wall; sometimes they’re helpful, sometimes they’re intrusive, sometimes they flash by so quickly that I just ignored them. Mainly, they’re there to be used or ignored as you see fit. It’s been probably 35 or 40 years since I’ve read “The Idiot,” but I found I remembered a surprising amount about it, and spent less and less time checking in on the translations. Watching Kurilov and Kalinichov perform, I got a sense of the subterranean movements of their characters. And listening as they spoke their Russian, I got not so much the sense of the plot as the music of their lives, the rhythm and tone of Rogozhin and Myshkin’s existences.

There’s a difference between watching or reading even a very good translation and hearing a story in its original voice. Pushkin, we’re told, is essentially untranslatable. Not so much Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky. Still, tastes come and go, and different translators find different things. For decades Constance Garnett’s translations seemed the norm, but they’ve fallen out of favor: too British, not enough Russian. Eminent English-language playwrights including Tom Stoppard and David Mamet have taken their crack at Chekhov, and been criticized by some for making the plays stageworthy but too blunt; not allusive and roundabout enough. Lately, the translating team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky has been ascendant in Russian lit circles. For those of us who don’t speak Russian, hearing the original language is a revelation: what we lose in pure information we gain in intrinsic flavor. I’ll take the memory of that sound into future conversations, on stage or page, with the Russian masters.

And the two actors, Kalinichev and Kurilov, speak it so differently! Kalinichev, as the epilectic and vaguely Christ-like Myshkin – the “idiot” of Dostoyevsky’s title – is water. Kurilov, as the impulsive and impassioned Rogozhin, is iron. One strikes; one flows. One is blunt, one is soft but relentless. Their acting style is large and expressive (again, in the mode of silent film) but utterly true emotionally. It’s remarkable work.

Not much time to catch it: just through Sunday, when the final performance, as Mitch Lillie quotes director Dolgachev in Willamette Week, will skip the subtitles and be “performed as it is performed in Moscow, as a total, unpredictable improvisation.” Should be a sight to see – and hear.

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