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Dramashop stages Scheib adaptation of Tolstoy play

What happens when beautiful people make monumentally bad decisions? Repeatedly?

These are the questions asked by Assistant Professor Jay Scheib as he directs his adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's "The Power of Darkness," presented by Dramashop April 8-10 and April 14-16 at 8 p.m. in Kresge Little Theater.

Best known for his novels "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina," Tolstoy "turned his hand to the stage with alarming accuracy, taking us on a joy ride of repression, depression, love and desire," said Scheib.

Written in 1886, "The Power of Darkness" is based on a real criminal case. The play portrays the moral and mental disintegration that ultimately leads a man to murder his own child. Scheib stages this 19th-century Russian drama in the present day as a highly physical, multimedia family portrait in which the characters are caught in a pressure cooker of changing times.

According to Dramashop dramaturg Kenny Roraback, a sophomore in physics, Tolstoy's play was written entirely in peasant dialect, bringing a threatening new realism to the Russian stage. Tsar Alexander III, under pressure from religious and political adversaries, banned the play's performance. It premiered instead at the Theatre Libre in Paris in 1888 and was enormously successful, quickly becoming a cornerstone of naturalism in theater.

However, "The Power of Darkness" has had limited success in its English performances, due in part to the highly colloquial Russian speech and the limitations of existing translations which, with one exception, have converted the language of Russian peasants into academic English, Roraback said.

Recognizing this issue, Scheib studied existing translations and revamped them to restore the play's original linguistic life. In Scheib's version, Anisya rat-poisons her terminally ill husband Peter for the love of Nikita, a promiscuous man who gets many women pregnant, including his own stepdaughter, Akulina. When a conniving mother-in-law steps in to set things right, no one will ever be the same.

"It's all fun and games until somebody loses an eye for an eye," Scheib said.

Scheib recently staged Alfred de Musset's classic romance "Lorenzaccio" at the Loeb Drama Center while in residence at Harvard University. His New York credits include Bernard-Marie Koltès' "West Pier" at the Ohio Theatre, a studio production of "Falling and Waving" at the Arts at St. Ann's in Brooklyn, and "Herakles" at Chashama in Times Square.

Tickets for "The Power of Darkness" are $8, with discounts available for students and seniors. There will also be a two-for-one discount for the April 14 show. For tickets and information, call 253-2908, e-mail or visit

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 7, 2004.

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