Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Knife's Edge Between Love and Hate: Soulpepper Theatre Company's The Kreutzer Sonata

“Marriage. The endless rehashing of hurts and hatreds.”
Yuri in The Kreutzer Sonata
The staging couldn't be simpler: a chair, a rug, a side table with a bible, a letter, jug and glass of water. The light from almost directly overhead illuminates this tableau. But within that simplicity exists layers of human emotion that can rip and tear a soul apart. Such is the setting of the Soulpepper Theatre Company's production of The Kreutzer Sonata (it runs there in repertory in Toronto until the end of August). For a 'summertime' show, this work is brave and deeply troubling, because the story it tells is of one man, talking to the audience, describing how murderous jealousy led him to kill his beloved wife.
Leo Tolstoy
Star and director Ted Dykstra (director of this season's Soulpepper productions The Glass Menagerie and Billy Bishop Goes To War) also adapted the work for the stage from a corrosive novella written by Leo Tolstoy in 1888. This is Dykstra's fifth time doing the show – a show that began life in 2009 with The Art of Time Ensemble (a Toronto-based company) and then last year as part of the Toronto Summerworks program (a series of short works that runs throughout August each year). We first see Dykstra standing behind the chair as the lights slowly, painfully come up. It's a startling image, as he looks like a demon emerging from the darkness, which sets the stage for what is to come. Dykstra as Yuri stands slightly hunched as he rests his hands gently on the back of the chair. He (and we) are listening to a portion of “The Kreutzer Sonata” by Beethoven. Finally, the lights come up full (top marks to Lorenzo Savoini for his set and lighting design, plus his costumes – they are all of a piece) and Yuri takes the chair, pours himself some water, crosses his legs and begins.
He is a long-married upper middle class man with prestige, a nice home in Moscow, plenty of servants, children and, of course, a wife. A wife, whom he thinks, has begun to take him for granted (as he has she). To occupy her time, she has taken up playing the violin, an instrument she played in her youth. One night, he tells us, Yuri encounters a former school mate, Nicolai. Through circumstances, circumstances he instantly regrets, he introduces Nicolai to his wife. Nicolai is an expert piano player and it is suggested (by Yuri!) that he and Yuri's wife play music together. Yuri is a successful man, but he is also petty, self-pitying and filled with hate for men like Nicolai: “He was the sort of man women call handsome and men call effeminate.”  As the wife and Nicolai practice, Yuri's jealousy emerges like an awakened snake that was wrapped itself around his heart. The snake strikes the first time the night before a planned soiree at the family home where the wife and Nicolai will play “The Kreutzer Sonata” (“a duet,” Yuri tells us with venom, “for violin and piano.”). Yuri becomes physical with his wife, but then miraculously manages to let the anger subside before he almost kills her.
After a long night of talking, they reconcile, the concert takes place, and things seem to have reached a new level of love and understanding. So much so, that Yuri leaves on a week-long business trip. Then a letter, an innocent letter, arrives from his wife with a vague reference to Nicolai. The snake awakens.  
Ted Dykstra as Yuri
This is a chilling, horrifying work that is built around Dykstra's use of words. But what words; what a performance. Over the course of the one-hour show, Dykstra, while mostly seated, paints vivid pictures of what happened and why. Who needs to see it enacted on stage when my mind, through Dykstra's performance and words, created the images so completely disturbing? Images of building violence, roiling anger, spiteful hate (and yes, during the reconciliation, visions of love and tenderness) are all here. Some of the moments are beautifully realized theatrically especially when, at one point, Dykstra matches his voice to the rhythms of “The Kreutzer Sonata” that plays off and on throughout the performance. During a particularly distressing moment late in the show, I involuntarily bent my knees slightly up towards my chest. Near the end, I found my hand over my mouth stopping an angry retort from coming out. It's probably to ‘shake’ this man from his psyche that as the lights came back up for the applause, Dykstra ever so slightly stuck his tongue out at us.
Ted Dykstra
There are a few minor moments that don't work. The music comes in at one point late a little ham-fistedly, and the last line makes sense for the time that the novella was originally written, but we needed just a bit more illumination for why that last line makes sense. In the 21st century it doesn't; in the 19th it probably did.
Regardless, this is powerful, powerful stuff. Dykstra is very brave to put himself into this man, and the disturbing places he explores, but he is completely fearless here. Soulpepper too should be commended for recognizing that not all of us want fluff in the summer. Sometimes we want works layered with dark human emotions, and this play provides it.
David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt of his novel here. Or go to for more information.

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