September 27, 2007

Popular Russian wisdom holds that all humanity can be divvied up into Dostoyevsky lovers and Tolstoy lovers. Some may claim to enjoy both, but in its innermost reaches, a personality thrills either to darkness or the promise of light. The Mint Theater Company’s production of Tolstoy’s 1886 The Power of Darkness hands the theory its hat. The devout, forgiveness-obsessed Tolstoy could obviously operate handily down the well of neurosis; in fact, there are times in this coal mine–black drama when the stink of human ugliness makes an audience gasp. And while Tolstoy does, late in the game, introduce a breath of spiritual enlightenment, it’s far too late. That canary is already dead.

The ruthlessly detailed story of farmhand Nikita (a fierce Mark Alhadeff), who engages in seduction, betrayal and murder, unfolds like a Jacobean soap opera. His mother, Matryona (Randy Danson, operating at gale force), tends to push his female victims into his path, all in the name of her baby’s happiness. The ensemble is good, but it is Danson’s cheerful, efficient evil that propels the play into something like greatness. Martin Platt’s rough-and-ready translation (Nikita storms about shouting, “These fucking women!”) and confident direction help the three hours fly. The only unsteadiness comes in the piece’s final moments, when neither Alhadeff nor Tolstoy can convince us of Nikita’s late-stage conversion. Instead, it is left to Bill Clarke’s set—a blue log wall pierced by bursts of golden hay, golden windows, golden icons—to communicate the hidden nature of true redemption.