110208inquisitor2.jpgIn his hugely influential book The Empty Space, universally well-regarded director Peter Brook writes, "I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all I need for an act of theatre to be engaged." Brook's aesthetic has gone through many permutations since he first burst onto the scene in the '60s with his rigorous and radical interpretations of such plays as Marat/Sade, but his defining characteristic has always been his passion for stripping away excesses to get to the essential.

Now 83, his adaptation of "The Grand Inquisitor" parable from The Brothers Karamazov (first staged in England in 2006), finds the director at his most austere. With no lighting transition, two actors enter the voluminous, exposed empty space of New York Theater Workshop: Jake Smith as Christ; who, in the context of Dostoevsky's novel, has returned to Earth during the Spanish Inquisition and been promptly arrested by Church authorities; and the magnetic Bruce Myers as the Narrator/Inquisitor, who does all the talking.

The fifty-five minute performance is simply an oral presentation of Dostoevsky's text, a nuanced examination of free will, suffering, and the Church's intellectual enslavement of the weak and frightened rabble. To the Inquisitor, who sentenced a hundred heretics to burn just yesterday, Christ's appearance in Seville is a dire threat to the established order. He demands to know: "Why have you come to disturb us?"

Reading "The Grand Inquisitor" chapter can be an electrifying and thought-provoking experience. Even Laura Bush has famously cited it as her favorite piece of literature. (Bush is United Methodist, so one assumes she identifies with Dostoevsky's radical indictment of Papal tyranny—though given her husband's conduct, it seems plausible she finds the Inquisitor's arguments persuasive.) But ironically, Brook's passion for eliminating all but what is necessary in theater makes this production feel unnecessary.

So much has been stripped away—or, rather, so little added in the way of theatrical ideas—that the performance is simply not dramatic. Theater can occur with just a single human in an empty space, but in this case I wonder what purpose was served by dramatizing a novel while simultaneously eschewing such vulgarities as drama. Staying home and reading the book would have had the same impact, and at a fraction of the cost.

Photo of Bruce Myers courtesy Tristram Kenton.