The Kreutzer Sonata tells the story of Pozdnyshev, a man torn apart internally when he suspects his wife is cheating on him. Consumed with envy and motivated by his animalistic sexual rage, Pozdnyshev murders his wife.
Tolstoy believed in the transformative and instructive power of art. Whether or not this belief contributed to his genius as a writer is debatable. What isn’t up for debate is his motivation behind writing the novella The Kreutzer Sonata in the late 17th century. It’s a very simple motivation, really: he wants show people that sex is evil and they should avoid it.
As a citizen of the 21st century working in Canadian theatre, Ted Dykstra, who adapted and performs the work, likely doesn’t share the Russian master’s sense of moral responsibility. Because quaint prudishness aside, The Kreutzer Sonata remains a chilling exposition of a man pitching headfirst into the abyss. The novella itself is basically a monologue delivered by Pozdnyshev as a confession to strangers on a train. Translating it to the stage should be a cinch, right?
Well, yes and no. Smartly, Dykstra has pared down a good deal of Pozdnyshev’s back-story, focusing on the events leading up to the murder. Dykstra also changes the setting. Instead of a train-ride confession for the benefit of a few strangers, Posdnyshev tells his grisly soliloquy from his parlour, slumped in a blood red wing- chair, vodka in hand, dressed in a silk housecoat.
During the hour-long performance Dykstra never once gets up from his chair. Most likely the minimalist blocking is meant to create a sense of intimacy, focus the audience’s attention on the story, heighten every hand-gesture and nuanced facial expression. But though the play is only an hour, it’s still too much time for an audience to watch someone sitting down. As compelling a presence as Dykstra is, I couldn’t help but get a bit fidgety. At times I was just distracted by how long he could hold his legs crossed in what looked like a very uncomfortable position.
It’s clear Dykstra is going for a tour de force here. His performance rises and falls like a piece of music, and it’s amazing to watch him switch between demonic calm and sheer apoplexy with lightning assuredness. Watching Dykstra you are clearly watching a master craftsman at work, though the material only gives him so much to work with. Posdnyshev’s emotional states range from brooding ponderousness to brooding jealousy to brooding rage. After Dykstra has run through these a few times you start to recognize his roster of tricks.
There are times when Dykstra the writer butts heads with Dykstra the performer. A good example of this comes when Dykstra uses snatches of music to underscore his performance. The rule that you must incorporate a piece of music in your adaptation if it happens to also be the title of the work you are adapting is inscribed on an old tablet somewhere, but Dykstra the performer is such a vet that even the prospect of a cliché doesn’t hinder his ability.
The heart of The Kreutzer Sonata is a scene where Posdnyshev’s wife and her red-lipped lover perform a duet of the titular sonata as the cuckolded husband watches on. Dykstra achingly draws out Posdnyshev’s experience of the performance, allowing the music to wash over him and give him brief respite from his suspicion only to have it return more violently than ever. It’s one of the strongest scenes in the play, and Dykstra the actor riffs beautifully off of the music, allowing stabs of violin to punctuate his sentences. It’s clear Dykstra the writer fell a little too in love with the device and after bringing it back a few more times, including during the otherwise harrowing murder scene, the concept becomes a played out and distracting.
I want to emphasize again that Dykstra is obviously a very skilled actor. His performance is peppered with these incredible small moments such as when Posdnyshev recalls the calculating brutality with which he dispatches his servant on some pointless errand so the house will be clear of witnesses. It’s these moments when Posdnyshev recreates conversations and fully invests himself in the scene that give The Kreutzer Sonata substance. After a while I started to wish Dykstra had included another cast member to bounce off.
It’s hard not to look at this the story’s finger waggling 18th century moralizing without putting on our postmodern, post-feminist, post-Freudian, goggles. In this light Posdnyshev isn’t a pathetic loser of some spiritual battle with his animal nature. He’s a repulsive aggressor who murders his wife because she refuses to submit to him. The motivation for his crime is related to sex, but a modern reading of the story would likely flip the script— it’s Posdnyshev’s sense of sexual unenlightnement and his repressive nature that’s the source of his rage. As hard as Dykstra tries to keep a straight face when delivering Posdnyshev’s final declamation that “sex is the ruin of man”, it’s impossible for the line not to be soaked in irony. Dykstra knows that we know that he knows that kind of he’s full of shit
And without the pretense of Tolstoy’s pedantic morality, silly as it might seem, Dykstra’s Kreutzer Sonata is just a criminal’s confession. And while that can be engaging and even entertaining in a Schadenfreude-ey sort of way, in the end it’s just narration.
Directed, starring, and adapted by Ted Dykstra; presented by Soulpepper. At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Mill St. Toronto ON, (416) 866-6666. From July-August.