“The Karamozovs” is a new play by Brooklyn-based writer and director Anna Brenner. “The Karamazovs” is best described as a freewheeling distillation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” and it is set to premiere from March 4 to March 21 at the New Ohio Theatre. The story follows a family of siblings who are coping with the death of their father. Part murder mystery and part spiritual quest, the play examines how individuals struggle to create an identity and eventually come into their own, regardless of family history. Essentially a playful marriage of the experimental and the classical, “The Karamazovs” uses text, movement, and live video, along with disregardance of gender roles to question what makes a modern person “good.”
Anna Brenner recently discussed her work on this play and more via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your love for the arts and why do you gravitate towards the theater?
Anna Brenner (AB): I grew up in rural Michigan where I had a pretty idyllic childhood running around in nature. I joke (but it’s true) that I also have allergies, so while I appreciated natural beauty, I ended up basically living at the public library. Books and movies were my first love and escape. I never had much of an interest in performing, but I liked telling people what to do, so I was always directing little shows and movies. When I got to college I really fell in love with collaborating and directing theater, and I was lucky to have some great mentors, and support to make my own work.
MM: What led to the creation of “The Karamazovs” and what most drew you to the play?
AB: I had been obsessed with the novel for many years and decided to get a few actors together to start reading sections of it with me to see what ideas came up. We started with a chapter in the novel “The Brothers Get Acquainted” where two of the brothers sit down and finally talk to each other after barely interacting through half the novel. It reminded me of a conversation I had with my youngest brother, when he came to visit me at college when he was still in high school. I related to these characters deeply and wanted to see what I could learn by exploring this material and making it my own.
MM: This is very much a family drama, so why did that theme call to you?
AB: I have two brothers, and we are very different from each other, in many ways we are quite similar to the Karamazov siblings. Our father died over ten years ago now (he was quite lovely, unlike the father in the novel and our play), and when I looked back on the time around his death, we were each in these moments of great personal growth and crisis, just like the characters in the book. I was interested in exploring that time, and themes of loss and grief, and what it means to become independent and yet at the same time realize you will always be a part of each other, even if you’re incredibly different.
MM: How is this both similar to and different from its source material?
AB: We’ve distilled the core of the novel but in the process have had to make choices about what additional plot lines and characters to let go. We’ve also created a new character, Liz, our narrator and the caretaker to the dying patriarch, who is loosely based on another character from the novel. The underlying theme of abuse and misogyny goes unspoken in the novel, but developing it especially at this time, I wanted to bring those issues more to the surface in our production. I also wanted to do away with the traditional gender norms of the novel and bring in something of my own experience as a queer woman.
MM: What were the challenges of getting this piece staged and how did you find a venue?
AB: This is the first time I’ve ever self-produced. I’ve been raising money for a couple of years, and as an ensemble we got together about once every six months for a week at a time, around all of our other freelance work. I had to make a number of choices about how to spend money. The ensemble is so integral to this piece that working around their schedules and making sure they were paid was really important. (Still, no one was doing this for the money, and everyone made sacrifices to make this work.) Early on we had a residency upstate at Drop Forge & Tool that set the tone for our work together. I reached out to a number of spaces, and the New Ohio was the best fit for our dates and scope. Also, the Artistic Director, Robert Lyons, has adapted Dostoevsky so it felt like he was a kindred spirit.
MM: What’s your favorite segment of the show and why?
AB: It’s hard to choose, but I love Dmitri’s impassioned ramblings, especially his defense monologue. He, like all the siblings, is full of contradictions and complexity and we simultaneously love and loathe him. I also love when Aly and Viv finally sit down and “get to know each other once and for all” since that was the starting place for the entire project. And I love the dances!
MM: What do you hope audiences take away from the performance?
AB: I hope audiences will feel both entertained and moved to think about what and who and how they love. How do we share ourselves with each other? How can we show up for each other, so that everyone can get free?
MM: What other shows have you created, what are they about, and what themes might you like to address in the future?
AB: I’ve made a handful of original shows, “Are We Here Yet?,” “Disquiet,” “3 Women,” “Terra Incognita”… and in most of that work, like “The Karamazovs,” I’ve been interested in pursuing questions around individual freedom, community, and the question of how to be a good person. My wife and I have two young children, and the experience of being a parent has been so complex and expansive, I’m sure with a little more distance I’ll want to unpack that more.
MM: What projects are coming up for you soon and is there anything else that you would like to mention?
AB: I’m most excited to get back into workshop and see what comes next – I’m tempted to develop part two of “The Karamazovs” that focuses on the siblings further into the future. Dostoevsky left notes about his intentions to write a sequel, where Alyosha goes on to start a revolutionary movement, and is compromised by their newfound power. Dostoevsky died shortly after he finished The Brothers Karamazov, so it was never written. We’re also hoping this piece will continue to have a future life and can hopefully continue to grow if it tours.