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When Chatham County playwright Michael A. Smith moved to the Chapel Hill, NC area from Michigan, he arrived with an entourage; well, more or less. He came as a member of the Somnambulist Project, a company of about 30 individuals who moved here en masse to bring their own bent on theater to the Triangle. The group had a major influence on stage and music in the Triangle, lasting almost eight seasons and challenging theatergoers with everything from Shakespeare himself to The Anti-Shakespeare Festival, which ran each summer in the Forest Theatre on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.
Smith has been writing plays for a number of years now, and it is clear that his years with the Somnambulist Project have influenced his writing. Although he may be called an historical playwright (A Mouthfulla Saccho and Vanzetti and Europe Central), he incorporates a number of theatrical combinations that the standard historical drama does not. Keystone-Cops-like pursuits, for example. His brand of history gives us the opportunity to look on past events, from this current vantage point, and see what may now be viewed as the ludicrousness of the times. Take 1840s Russia, for example. The Tsar still ruled; but Russia was a very different country from either the Soviet Union, one of its disguises, or the current day. As Smith points out in his newest work, In the Doghouse: The Execution of Dostoyevsky, pretty much everything was regulated upon the word of The Man; and dissidents, be they crackpots or real reformers, were not by any means allowed their voices. Moves against the Tsar were not only considered to be treasonous; they were indeed blasphemy, as the Tsar was God’s representative here on earth.
Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern has taken on Smith’s latest play as a guest of Manbites Dog Theater’s Other Voices Series; it opened this weekend at the theater in Durham and runs through Feb. 3rd. Saturday night’s performance was a sell-out, apparently fed by word of mouth and an absolutely crack team of cast members. Tom Marriott directs a dozen local stars well recognized in the area; and the result is smoothly and professionally acted, to the point that several easily-recognized faces went undetected inside their characters.
The overall result was a good one, and a fine time was had by a full house of multi-aged and multicolored theatergoers. But all was not entirely rosy. Act I dragged interminably, doing as it must its job of laying the groundwork for the actual events to come. Very little seemed to happen in Act I. There was a tremendous amount of hurry and scurry; but nothing actually transpired until very late, when a police inspector, Porfiry (LaMark Wright), had Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s brother, Mikhail (Gregor McElvogue), arrested for Crimes Against the Tsar. Up to that point, what we had seen was more a travelogue of Life in St. Petersburg, 1850.
In the Doghouse wants to be a comedy — and it is for the most part — but it must get through the actual title events, which take place in the penultimate scene. After Fyodor (Adam Sampieri) has been captured by an overzealous young detective, Pieski (“Polish for dog,” portrayed by Thaddaeus Edwards), he and his brother, plus a patron named Madame Petrashevskaya (Marcia Edmundson) and an anarchist named Nikolai Speshnev (Michael O’Foghludha), are to be shot. But the sentence is commuted by the Tsar for all four — at the last minute, of course — to 20 years in Siberia. Still, things have already moved too far forward by momentum alone; and our overzealous cop shoots Fyodor, crying “Dostoyevsky must die!” The trouble here is — and few do not know it — Dostoyevsky cannot die at this point in time. He has still to write a lot of Russian novels; the kind that weigh several pounds apiece. Alas, the man who dies is Dostoyevsky, but it is Mikhail who takes the bullet for his brother, having moved to embrace him at the moment his sentence is changed.
The entire cast — as is customary in political executions—is assembled. A peasant (Dorrie Casey), who is representative of the masses but is more a stage magician in the hands of the playwright, scuttles about unseen. The belle of Fyodor’s affections, a liberated woman named Avdotya (Dana Marks), pledges to go with Fyodor to his icy sentence, leaving behind a saddened Rodoin Razumihin (Jay O’Berski), who has been Fyodor’s best friend from childhood. All this is witnessed by Katerina Ivanova (Nicole Quenelle), the boys’ landlady, and a pair of massive but silent guards (Eddy Shipman and Geraud Staton).
A playwright could not have asked for a better first production. It is originally staged, precisely enacted, using a sensational and crowd-drawing cast and having at its disposal one of the best black box theaters available in central North Carolina. But the play needs attention. It wants to both reveal to us how Fyodor Dostoyevsky came to write his famous novels, and poke fun at the times in which he lived. It doesn’t seem to manage either fully. The obvious humor and the sudden horror are too terribly dissimilar, and the overall work ends up feeling like two different plays: Act I a comedy, Act II a tragedy. The challenge to the playwright is to make the play as a whole (as this reviewer perceives the intent) a comedy wrapped around a single tragic event — which is possible, judging by the success of such plays as Irish dramatist Marie Jones’ Stones in His Pockets, now playing at PlayMakers Repertory Company.
All this manic humor and sudden egregious horror is staged on a truly exemplary set made up of only one dynamic set piece and a “red wall” that is built to resemble stone. But the unmistakable feeling that it is far less is confirmed when a breeze blows through the wall, moving slowly and smoothly from stage right to stage left, once the tragedy has passed. It unmistakably foretells the fall of the Tsar and the coming of a better life for his subjects. The use of such a metaphor brings to mind a line from songwriter Paul Kantner, one that is boldly underlined by this work: “tis a gentle wind that blows against the empire.”
Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern presents In the Doghouse: The Execution of Dostoyevsky Wednesday-Saturday, Jan. 24-27, at 8:15 p.m.; Sunday, Jan. 28, at 2 p.m.; and Wednesday-Saturday, Jan. 31-Feb. 3, at 8:15 p.m. at Manbites Dog Theater, 703 Foster St., Durham, North Carolina. $10 Wednesday and Thursday and $15 Friday-Sunday. 919/682-3343 or http://www.tix.com/Schedule.asp?OrganizationNumber=150. Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern: http://www.littlegreenpig.com/season/2006_dostoyevsky/ [inactive 3/07]. Manbites Dog Theater: http://www.manbitesdogtheater.org/172/.