By James Foritano
BOSTON — In celebration of the stagecraft of legendary director Peter Brook, ArtsEmerson is producing “The Grand Inquisitor,” which opened March 24 at the Black Box Theater in the Paramount Center and runs through April 3. The play is based on a passage from Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” and was adapted by Marie Helene Estienne.
The concept of the play is that Christ is strolling the streets of Seville on a sultry evening during the most terrible time of the inquisition in Spain, sometime in the 1500s. Around 100 heretics, give or take, have been “burned at the stake” just the other evening, so there is unusual activity in the streets. Nevertheless Christ himself is easily recognized by the citizens who not only acclaim him, but also urge him to perform a miracle — which he does. The Grand Inquisitor, played by Bruce Myers, happens on the scene and has Christ summarily arrested. Later that evening the Grand Inquisitor faces Christ in his cell with the question that is also an accusation, a rebuke, an alarm: “Is it you? Is it you?”
The grand question of this drama is whether or not The Grand Inquisitor faces Christ down. And we never quite know.
Christ’s back, which is all we see of his sitting form, doesn’t give much away, nor do Dostoevsky’s words, so the burden of this confrontation falls on Bruce Myerson’s portrayal.
I have to say, first off, that Mr. Myerson bobbled his lines and had to be prompted more than a few times, sending a frisson through the audience which, in this viewer’s opinion, matched, if not outmatched the electricity inherent in the historic meeting, itself. I accommodated myself as best I could to this disappointment and attended to the better part of the performance, which I found very good.
After discharging the complex emotions of his initial question, The Grand Inquisitor assumes the mantel of a lecturer as if he had been born to it, or at least educated himself to perfection. Standing on a lectern high above the sweep of Christian history, The Grand Inquisitor enumerates in chilling detail the bloody consequences of Christ’s “gift” to weak mankind of freedom — of conscience and of action. The wrecks of history are well known as horrendous failures of politics, human nature, organized religion — take your pick where the fault most lies.
Nevertheless, hearing this horror in Dostoevsky’s eloquent words delivered unsparingly by a stern and compassionate narrator, the audience squirms anew. Maybe the best place for this re-arisen Christ is in a cell. We’ll all be much safer! Won’t we?
But, just as we give our assent, doubt creeps in. This doubt is encouraged by faint tones of pleading, of self-justification riving the organ-tones of The Grand Inquisitor’s magisterial delivery. Or are we imagining this weakness? Our lecturer seems to know the New Testament better than Christ, himself, and he makes his points with the deftness of an expert prosecutor. But is he a bit too desperately in love with his own lengthy eloquence, as though not just the bare facts, but some effort of will is necessary to fully believe his argument.
At the end of this grandly inflected monologue, Christ rises, surprisingly, with The Grand Inquisitor’s assent, crosses his cell, kisses his jailer on the lips and walks back onto the streets of Seville.
Will the crowds strolling the streets lead Christ gently but firmly back to his cell, or will they vote for a hazardous freedom by enabling his escape, or just by looking the other way?
And where will we stand, as we put on our coats, hats, scarves and head out into another Boston spring?
ArtsEmerson presents “The Grand Inquisitor” March 24 through April 3 at the Paramount Black Box, 559 Washington Street, Boston. Call (617) 824-8000.