Occasionally actors appear in roles they seem born to play. Such is the case in Central Works’ “Dostoevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor.” It’s an adaptation, by the small company’s longtime resident playwright Gary Graves, of a story told by one of the characters in the 19th-century Russian novelist’s “The Brothers Karamazov.”
In the 75-minute, two-actor version of the tale-within-a-tale, set in 16th-century Seville in the palace of the Spanish Inquisition, we peek inside the convoluted mind of the all-powerful title character. Julian Lopez-Morillas, entirely in his element, delivers a tortured, bombastic, colorful performance that at times calls to mind the full-bodied acting style of Laurence Olivier.
He is ideally paired with Michael Gene Sullivan, an actor-director-playwright best known for his satirical-political work with the San Francisco Mime Troupe.
Here, Sullivan aces four discrete roles: the Inquisitor’s Moorish-convert servant, an old woman arrested for fraud by the Inquisitor, the Inquisitor’s masked henchman (a comically Igor-like portrayal), and lastly, a silent and mysterious stranger found wandering the streets and believed by the populace to be Him.
Amid fragments of Gregorian chants (sound by Gregory Scharpen) and occasional washes of fiery, hellish red light (designed by Graves, who played the title role in Central Works’ 2005 world premiere of the play), the Inquisitor wends his way through a series of existential crises and intellectual arguments.
Alone, he falls on the floor in fits, and desperately appeals to a God he later claims to not believe in.
With his servant, he relishes descriptions of the procession of convicts (Jews, Moors, false converts, Lutherans) marching toward “relaxation” — that is, execution.
The masked henchman’s job is to subject the Inquisitor to a masochistic ritual, a near-strangulation.
Finally, the arrival of the silent stranger unleashes a hodgepodge of contradictory thoughts. Is this Him or not?
“Why now?” demands the fearful Inquisitor. “We have no need of you here!” He goes on to claim his love for weak, gullible humankind, and to rant against “this cross you saddled us with, this free will.”
Yet despite the riveting acting under Jan Zvaifler’s polished direction, fine production values (including Tammy Berlin’s costumes) and provocative philosophical ideas, Graves’ talky script sags too often into dense theoretical treatises.
And the Inquisitor’s theories, justifications and guilt-ridden cries for redemption become at times repetitive.
Also, the play’s overall structure, punctuated by a series of mini-climaxes, lacks dramatic build and denouement. Some judicious trimming of the text would create a more consistently involving experience.