City Paper Review: Martin Giles shines in this monologue based on the Tolstoy novella

How timely Leo Tolstoy can be, in the hands of Irish playwright Nancy Harris and Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre. The Kreutzer Sonata, which started life in 1889 as a scandalous novella, has tempted many artists in various media, from still painting to multimedia extravaganzas. But Harris’ 2009 one-act monologue provides a truly meaty adaptation — if I may mix metaphors — by cutting Sonata to the bone.

The original Sonata, of course, is by Beethoven. Tolstoy considered it too powerfully emotional and sensuous for casual listening, especially in mixed company. In his original story, he uses the music to arouse a fierce and fatal passion between a bored society matron (and amateur pianist) and a professional (if equally bored) violinist.

In Harris’ play, the would-be paramours and all of Tolstoy’s other minor characters are sucked away from the live action. The entire play meanders through the mind, memory and imagination of the unwilling member of this love triangle, the husband, Pozdynyshev. It’s a tour de force performance by Martin Giles, directed by PICT’s interim producing artistic director, Alan Stanford, and enhanced by the talents of the design/tech team.

Pozdynyshev is one of Tolstoy’s typically complacent bourgeois whose life falls apart. Giles does not merely fall, or disintegrate, but rips off agonizing hunks of flesh in working through his anger, pride, suspicion, stupefaction and envy into a jealous rage before he ultimately plummets into limitless (but unspoken) remorse.

Pianist Alaine Fink, as the nameless wife, and violinist Juan Jaramillo, seen and heard only in recordings, complete the “cast” as they haunt Pozdynyshev. Jim French’s lighting helps Giles look truly possessed, while projections designed by Jessi Sedon-Essan provide the virtual “props.” Props of another variety are also due to Elizabeth Atkinson, music director and sound composer; Gianni Downs, scenic designer and production manager; John-Michael Breen, assistant director; Aaron Billinger, technical director; et al.

Sonata plays to Giles’ mercurial strengths, switching moods and tones in a blink. But it’s still a challenge for the audience as well as actor. Heavy serious ideas — worth chewing on — leavened with the occasional levity.