At one end of the room by the patio in the Berkeley City Club that serves as theater for Central Works Ensemble, a rough-hewn cross studded with spikes adorns the wall above a gothic chair, a wooden ecclesiastic throne. A lamp hangs by a chain, guttering. To Gregorian chanting, a wry, acerbic figure in plain habit and shaved head looks upward, fixedly, as if staring at the light from a mullioned glass window we see reflected on the walls.
“Have mercy on me, o God,” the man intones. “I have done such evil in your sight, you are just in your sentence.” There’s the sound of flames crackling, and the man faints, awakened later by a black man, a Moor, in a more elaborate robe: “Don’t you recognize me, Your Eminence? ... You’re the Grand Inquisitor of Spain!”
These two are the only two performers the audience will see over the following hour and a half. But not the only two characters.
Dostoevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor was originally a story within another story. In The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan the skeptic tells his pious brother Alyosha a parable: what would happen if Jesus came back to the world at the point of the Church’s greatest moment of power and authority? How would the judge and torturer of those wayward from the Church’s teachings react to his crucified god?
Dostoevsky intended it, at least in part, as a parable of the division between the authority of the Roman Church and the Protestant call to the grace of God as the only authority—thereby justifying the Eastern Church as the only one preserving the integral Christian message. There have been many stagings of this story, abstracted from its context in the novel, and Central Works has come up with one that’s uniquely successful, a truly imaginative adaptation that expands on the situation for a contemporary audience.
Dostoevsky’s little tale centers on a one-sided dialogue between a silent Christ and an admonitory Grand Inquisitioner who has had Jesus dragged in from the streets of Sevilla where he has been working miracles. Decades before August Strindberg came up with the kind of one-sided monologue delivered by one actor to another: “silent one,” a form of exposition that bears Strindberg’s name and has been a mainstay of American theater since Eugene O’Neill. Dostoevsky realized the same innovation in his story.
“The trouble with that,” laughed Central Works director Jan Zvaifler, “is what actor’s going to want to play a part with no lines, listening to another actor constantly talking?”
In the unique collaborative style Central Works has developed, Zvaifler and adapter Gary Graves (both co-directors and founders of the Ensemble—Graves also plays the Grand Inquisitor himself) worked with actor David Skillman (a first-timer with the company, a stunning debut) and the production staff to come up with what might be called an improvization on the theme in four scenes, each featuring a different character collateral with the Grand Inquisitioner, all played by the shape-shifting Skillman.
The story gradually unfolds as the Moorish “familiar” to the Inquisitor, who finds him on the floor, victim of a fit, tells him of the latest auto-de-fe and execution of heretics, all of whom confessed—except for a certain Verazuela, who the Inquisitor, once alone, wrily addresses in absentia, saying he’ll be missed. The others—the Jew “who wore his circumcision on his sleeve;” the Moor’s own cousin, a false convert from Islam—were merely garrotted; the unrepentent one burned at the stake, unnervingly serene.
The Inquisitioner ferrets it out of the familiar: An apparent mountebank, who the crowds seem to believe is Christ come again, has worked a miracle, giving sight back to a blind beggarwoman on the cathedral steps. “An old wives’ tale!” barks the Inquisitor, “I know every beggar in Sevilla!”
The subsequent scenes bring Skillman back again and again in different roles to be confronted by Graves’ relentless yet subtle Inquisitor. As the ironically-named beggarwoman Magdalena, Skillman clutches his ragged shawl over his head and asks, “I hear people in pain; is this a prison?”—“Oh no, no, my dear; this is much more than a prison!” The beggarwoman confesses her own deceptiveness, but won’t surrender her belief that she met—“Him!”—at least, not until threatened.
Skillman later reappears as the executioner, in masked leather hood and apron, leading the Inquisitor through self-mortification that mimicks the grisly fate of the confessed heretics. And finally, in what would be merely a tour-de-force, if it weren’t for the light touch of ambiguity in the adaptation and the extreme sensitivity of Skillman’s interpretation in subtle expression and gesture, this exceptional “utility man” appears as “Him!”—returning Christ or itinerant imposter?—to face the outpourings of the Inquisitor. It could ironically be either a self-contradictory confession (almost at once denying God, yet announcing the stranger as Christ—before changing his tack again) or a clever baiting of the prisoner to react, to declare himself and be condemned.
Gary Graves plays the title character he’s adapted with an almost reptilian twist and leer, an exceptional person who feels himself close—and superior—to both man and God. David Skillman is the soul of the unspoken thoughts and emotions that play across his face, underpinning his spoken words, eloquent in silence. Jan Zvaifler’s direction furthers Central Works’ tradition of a thorough, imaginative combination of a few spare elements (and players) on a small stage in an intimate room—as does the work of Robert Anderson, Gregory Scharpen and Tammy Berlin, in light, sound and costume design.
Central Works presents The Grand Inquisitor through July 31 at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and at 5 p.m. Sundays. Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave. $9-25 sliding scale. For more information, call 558-1381 or see www.centralworks.org. r