(This review is by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal.)
On the face of it, Field Guide, the new production from Austin’s Rude Mechs (running through April 30 at the Off Center), is a loose adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Beneath that surface, however, lies an exploration of theatrical possibility that works to examine the potential of the bare stage in the way that the great Russian novelist examined the potential of the blank page.
This production of Field Guide, commissioned by the Yale Repertory Theatre, is proudly hailed as the “second draft” of the performance, and the inchoate quality of the show is actually a large part of what it makes it so dynamic. This is clearly an experimental piece, for both audience and performers.
This comes through in the slightly sketchy nature of Field Guide’s overall arc. Though motioning towards the plot of The Brothers Karamazov, the performance relies upon the text in the same way that the film Adaptation relies upon Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief. That is to say, Field Guide uses characters and situations from Dostoevsky’s novel to create theatrical moments, ripe with emotional resonance and philosophical questioning, but the story is secondary to moments of intense theatrical magic.
There are scenes in Field Guide that are breathtaking, exploring what simple human bodies can do on stage. In this endeavor, the six incredibly talented actors are aided by clever, low-tech scene design from Eric Dyer, mutable costumes from Aaron Flynn, playful lighting from Brian H Scott, and sound design from Robert S. Fisher (with original music from Austin legend Graham Reynolds) that acts almost as a seventh performer.
The text for this version of Field Guide comes mostly from cast member Hannah Kenah, with contributions from the rest of the cast, the first draft (co-created by Kirk Lynn and Madge Darlington), and, of course, Fyodor Dostoevsky. The show (it’s hard to classify it as a “play” in the classical sense) blends scenes from The Brothers Karamazov, imaginatively and energetically presented, with moments of stand-up comedy, direct address, dance, and personal confession.
At turns hilarious and heartbreaking, these separate building blocks accrete into a larger performative edifice that questions the ability to adapt something with the depth and complexity of a Russian novel for a visual medium like theater. Field Guide’s answer to this quandary is to create bare, simple, yet utterly amazing and inventive scenes of theatrical depth and complexity that explore the ability of the stage to probe deep into the human psyche in ways that a novel is unable to.
To say that Field Guide truly answers anything, though, is a bit misleading. Ultimately, it is a work of questioning, including asking the audience (via talk-back, a questionnaire in the program, and even during the performance, itself) where this show should go next. However, that sense of interrogation is a huge part of the show’s charm, and it would be somewhat of a shame for it to go beyond the “draft” stage into any kind of formalized “final” version.
Field Guide shows us the possibilities of theatre, and it continually changes and evolves through its 90-minute run, just as the medium of theatre itself is constantly changing and evolving. To reach an end point, then, might be almost disingenuous. As the show itself, asks, in its final moments, “How do you know when to end something?” Sometimes, you simply don’t.