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A Response to Dostoevsky's The Idiot

by Robert Montgomery

Recipient of 2 1999 San Francisco Bay Guardian Upstage/Downstage Awards

[Great performance (Beth Donohue) & Best Scenic Design (John Sowle)]

From left: Larry Spenler, Beth Donohue and Dan Carbone

Directed and Designed by John Sowle

Dramaturgy and Costumes by Steven Patterson

with Vincent Camillo, Dan Carbone, Beth Donohue, Paul Gerrior, Lawrence Motta, Russell Pachman, Kathryn Pallakoff, Larry Spenler and Kathryn Trask.

Musicians Elizabeth Keim, Mu'frida Bell & Noriko Kishi, Stage Managers Joseph Graham & Bill Parker.

Opened January 29, 1999 at EXIT Theatre; San Francisco, CA

Presented as part of EXIT Theatre’s 1999 Absurdist Season

Subject to Fits was listed on the eguide at www.sfgate.com as an Entertainment Tip Sheet "epick" by Apollinaire Scherr for the week of January 27 - February 3 and as a "Selected Performance" at www.sfstation.com.

"Here's our favorite succinct play description of the week, or maybe ever: 'A musical response to Dostoevsky's The Idiot.' Robert Montgomery's deconstructive take charts a 'guileless young epileptic' as he's swept into society's crass limelight, to disastrous results. Hum along with that -- we dare you. Reliable local directing duo John Sowle and Steven Patterson steer this opener for EXIT's latest Absurdist Season."

-- Dennis Harvey, sanfrancisco.sidewalk.com

From left: Kathryn Pallakoff, Vincent Camillo and Larry Spenler

"Critic's Pick! ... The musical form heads in a decidedly different direction in Subject to Fits, Robert Montgomery's 'response' to Dostoyevsky's Idiot. The misadventures of that wise fool, Prince Myshkin, are not literally adapted; Montgomery instead creates a theatricalized abstraction of the novel's themes and its demented state of mind.

"An enormous upsurge of happiness had completely dispirited me," Prince Myshkin (Vincent Camillo) says, and that line could serve as the motto for all of Dostoyevsky's thrashing lunatics, for whom misery is ecstasy and expiation. Guilt drips from characters who celebrate their own unworthiness, from the manipulative Natasha (Beth Donohue) to the brutal Rogozhin (Lawrence Motta).

"For all that, Subject to Fits resembles its source in that its wallow in Russian anguish is lively and sometimes hilarious. Director John Sowle perfectly captures the black comedy inherent in the writhing of fractured souls, an acuity reflected in the endless twirls of his ingenious unit set. Donohue is a knockout as the ruthless Natasha, and Dan Carbone, Russell Pachman, and Paul Gerrior all contribute vivid comic characterizations.

"Sowle and his Kaliyuga Arts partner Steven Patterson have demonstrated a gift for rendering such oddities with grace and insight, and it's fitting that the show should appear in EXIT Theatre's Absurdist season. When Subject to Fits asks Feodor the musical question, 'Whatever did you mean by the stuffed gerbil?', you're convinced that Dostoyevsky was the ur-absurdist par excellence."

-- Brad Rosenstein, San Francisco Bay Guardian

From left: Kathryn Pallakoff and Kathryn Trask

Top Pick! ... In The Idiot, Dostoevsky follows the quest of a naive, good-hearted epileptic struggling to fit into decadent 19th-century Russian society. Full of sensational adventures and provocative characters, the novel is also crammed with Dostoevsky's philosophical musings.

"New York playwright Robert Montgomery's Subject to Fits, originally produced in the '70s, effectively deconstructs the Russian writer's novel and adds Kurt Weill-type music. Local director John Sowle and dramaturg Steven Patterson (otherwise known as Kaliyuga Arts) have given Montgomery's script a boldly comic Theatre of the Absurd spin, and it works. A live organ and cello duo provides terrific sound effects and also accompanies the few musical numbers (including, just to give you an idea, an ode to a stuffed gerbil). Densely packed with physical comedy, broadly presentational acting, witticisms, weirdly unpredictable behavior, disjointed dialogue, and spurts of quasi-philosophical wisdom, the play is often confusing, mostly funny, and never dull.

"Prince Myshkin (Vincent Camillo, a charming Liam Neeson lookalike) leaves the institution where he's been treated for epilepsy to rejoin common society. Taking lodgings, he immediately becomes involved with a whole cast of assorted ne'er-do-wells, including a drunken retired military man (Paul Gerrior), his tubercular son (a truly hilarious Russell Pachman), and a few other colorful losers (Dan Carbone, Larry Spenler, Lawrence Motta). Two fickle women, the cruelly seductive Natasha (Beth Donohue) and the airheaded Aglaya (Kathryn Pallakoff), alternately vie for his favors and reject him. All seem to expect the good and cheerful--albeit perpetually perplexed--prince to reveal the secret of life and teach them how to be happy. "Only one man knows it's not bad to be good," sighs one of the characters of the Christ-like epileptic. But none, it seems, is destined for happiness. Several, in fact, come to a bizarre and violent end. And it's not clear whether even the prince himself grasps the true meaning of life.

"This is a mighty entertaining evening of shoestring-budget theatre: it has a cohesive ensemble (including Kathryn Trask as Aglaya's blissfully egocentric mother), an interesting script, and lots of raw energy."

-- Jean Schiffman, citysearch.com

Russell Pachman

"The opening shows in this year's Absurdist Season at the EXIT are a pair of bizarre reworkings of sensitive-prince tragedies. Hamlet, by Charles Marowitz, is a short but wild take on Shakespeare's Prince of Hesitancy; and Subject to Fits is based on The Idiot, Dostoevski's novel about the epileptic Prince Myshkin, who stands out as a Christian simpleton in St. Petersburg's backbiting high society. Both shows locate the nihilism at the foundation of the older masterpieces and dredge up something not just absurd but downright odd.

"Prince Myshkin arrives in St. Petersburg looking like a fresh-faced hippie, simply dressed, and falls into the claws of a nobleman called Parfyon Rogozhin and a rich society dame, Natasha Fillipovna, who first treats Myshkin like dirt and then considers marrying him. The first act deals with Natasha's marital decision; the second act deals with the pretty young Aglaya Yepanchin's obsession with the epileptic prince, and with Natasha's violent death.

"Beth Donohue plays Natasha as a bitch who sets fire to the hundred thousand rubles Rogozhin gives her as a marriage proposal, and asks Ganya, another suitor, to retrieve whatever burning money he can with his teeth. Ganya (Larry Spenler) is marvelously stiff and nervous, anxious to succeed in society; his father (Paul Gerrior) is a drunken and gravel-voiced general; and Aglaya (Kathryn Pallakoff) is a charmingly cruel and disingenuous brat ('Who needs you!' she shouts at Myshkin. 'All you care about are the deepest regions of people's souls!') Vincent Camillo is well cast in the lead; Kathryn Trask is a perfect Madame Yepanchin; and Dan Carbone, as Lebedev, maintains the show's bleeding edge of manic lack of taste. He's marvelously offensive."

-- Michael Scott Moore, SF Weekly

From left: Beth Donohue, Dan Carbone, Lawrence Motta, Russell Pachman, Paul Gerrior, Vincent Camillo and Larry Spenler.

"Subject to Fits is a series of shattered kaleidoscopic glimpses into the mostly insane, self-indulgent lives of innocent and epileptic Prince Myshkin's (Vincent Camillo) St. Petersburg acquaintances. In keeping with the play's fragmented format, Sowle has mounted the scenes in and about a revolving open stairwell of several landings, effectively serving as a Tower of Babel for the emotional outbursts of the cast ... The characters wear their emotions on their sleeves, as is their Russian wont; and between fits of anguish, lust, jealousy, guilt, and innocence, the cast bursts into song, the most operatic of which has something to do with a stuffed gerbil. Surreal, perplexing, and fascinating!"

-- Gene Price, San Francisco Bay Times

"I just loved Subject to Fits and thought it was the most vital show I've seen since I've been in San Fran. I can't wait to see more of your work."

-- Rob Melrose, Theatre Professional, San Francisco

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