07/12/2010 05:54 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

First Nighter: Peter Stein Scores with Dostoyevsky's The Demons for 12 Hours!

If you think that after investing nearly 12 hours in a marathon theater event, I'm going to write something unremittingly negative, you've got another thing coming. The severe rear-end tester is director Peter Stein's adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's 700-page novel The Demons (also known as The Possessed or The Devils), which is about political (read: incipient communism) and religious (read: the encroachment of atheism) discontent in a small Russian town circa the post-serf-freeing 1860s.

Keep in mind that the half-day presentation of Stein's handiwork also includes a time-devouring trip to Governor's Island and back and 20-minute walks to and from the former warehouse site. (Some lucky ticket-buyers ride golf carts.) And I haven't yet mentioned that on these shores Stein's adaptation requires scanning surtitles, since although the novel is in Russian, the version put together by one German company (Wallenstein Betriebs GmbH Berlin) and two Italian companies (Tieffe Teatro Milano and Napoli Teatro Festival) is performed in Italian on furniture picked up quickly here, since Ferdinand Wogerbauer's more elaborate furnishings couldn't be shipped.

Anyway, when a guy spends that amount of his life watching -- and, of course, reading -- such an ambitious production (not to mention boning up on it by plowing through the novel for the first time), you can bet he's going to make certain he comes away with something good to say. Luckily, there's plenty favorable to declare about it -- so much commendable stuff that it outweighs the drawbacks attributable to both Stein and Dostoyevsky.

As a matter of fact, in one ultra-significant way, watching The Demons is an improvement over reading it for the simple reason that reading any Russian novel boasting scores of characters trailing patronymics and nicknames is a trial, whereas on stage the characters are embodied by actors. The constant turning back of pages that Western hemisphere readers finds themselves doing -- during the many more than 12 hours it takes to forge through the volume -- is obviated.

In The Devils -- this reviewer believes The Possessed is the more appropriate translation of the title -- the focus is vied for by once somewhat renowned social critic Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky (Elia Schilton), his wealthy but changeable landlady Varvara Petrovna Stavrogina (Maddalena Crippa) and her homicidal, wastrel son Nikolay Vsevolodovich Stravrogin (Ivan Alovisio). Attention is also paid to agitated activist and Stepan Trofimovich's son Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky (Alessandro Averone) and other trouble-makers Alexey Nilych Kirillov (Fausto Russo Alesi), Liputin (Giovanni Visentin) and Ivan Pavlovich Shatov (Rosario Lisma). Their cumulative story is narrated by friend and observer Anton Lavrentyevich Grigoriev (Andrea Nicolini).

(See what I mean about following the names? Oh, well, that's Russian novels for you.)

The actors bearing the above names in parentheses and their colleagues (like Graziano Piazza, Paola Benocci, Armando De Ceccon, Irene Vecchio, Matteo Romoli, Franca Penone and Paolo Mazzarelli) -- who've been guided so astutely and compassionately by Stein -- are responsible for a large share of the production's success. To a man and a woman, they vivify Dostoyevsky's wildly diverse and possessed-by-inner-demons figures. It has to be noted, though--and perhaps even for chuckles -- that the characters display mannerisms less recognizably Russian than Italian. Yes, often to make a point, the fingers of one hand are gathered and pointed up.

Dostoyevsky's tale covers a short period of time during which Stepan and Varvara carry on a love-hate relationship, while Nikolay courts a local beauty, despite his being married for five years to someone else. As these troubled domestic conflicts unfold, the societal discontent that followed the freedom of the Russian serfs eventually ignites over the course of one horrific night. The number of bodies that pile up -- in the wake of a town-destroying fire -- is akin to a Shakespeare tragedy or, more to the point, is keenly characteristic of Dostoyevsky's obsessive themes.

Therein lies the author's -- or, better yet, the authors' -- problem. Because Dostoyevsky packs so much into his hopscotching saga and because Stein is faithful to the text (cutting very few particularly crucial elements -- other than one incendiary poem that's mentioned but not read aloud), the tone frequently shifts awkwardly. What begins with heavy satirical undertones and overtones as Dostoyevsky sketches in the town's manners and mores stutters into melodrama. (Voracious theater-goers will flash on Tom Stoppard's three-part Coast of Utopia, which in some ways was his attempt to write the Russian novel that The Demons already is.)

Within the alternating moods and modes, some of the set-pieces -- especially a pistol duel that Nikolay dallies with and Nikolay's late and spectacularly Dostoyevskian confession of his sins to a sympathetic priest -- stun in their theatricality, while others -- a lengthy conversation among several townsfolk at Varvara Petrovna's commodious digs and, much later, a party intended to be festive but disrupted by dissenters -- are merely static.

Nevertheless, The Demons is something to experience for anyone who loves to be immersed in theater -- this immersion offered with four 15-minute intermissions and two meal breaks. One problem now, however, is that its Lincoln Center engagement ran only to two already-completed performances. Will it come to your town? Not likely, but if it does, immerse yourself.