The theater is quiet. Yellow light from stage left beams over a cluttered set, the floor covered in dozens of overlapping oriental rugs. Myshkin (Mikhail Kalinichev) and Rogozhin (Andrey Kurilov) stalk in drunkenly, Myshkin as bumbling as Rogozhin is jumpy. "Where is... Nastasya Filippovna?" Myshkin asks about the object of his and Rogozhin's affections. "She's... here," Rogozhin replies, though he lets Myshkin discover her body for himself, fainting when he realizes. When Rogozhin pulls back a curtain, the harsh light disorients the audience but fails to revive Myshkin.

Moscow New Drama Theatre’s Nastasya Filippovna, based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot and directed by Viacheslav Dolgachev, has no music and no amplified voices. (Read our preview here.) The play’s two actors speak in often hushed Russian, with subtitles projected on the back wall. Only one sound permeates the play: The double tapping of Rogozhin, almost always answered by that of Myshkin. Even in more casual scenes, this tapping has the dual effect of capturing the harried tone of Dostoyevsky’s novel and keeping audiences engaged—and somewhat on edge—for the play’s full 100 minutes. There is no intermission, and there are no breaks in the tension.

As Rogozhin, Kurilov captures his character’s aimless fury and self-doubt. The role invites hyperactivity and overdramatization that steamrolls any subtlety, and initially this is what Kurilov seems to be doing. But as the performance grows more chaotic and the actors reenact earlier scenes from the novel, even voicing absent characters’ lines, Kurilov imps the injured ego of the teenage Aglaya and the insane whimsy of Nastasya Filippovna. He could have left the affected, falsetto voice behind in Moscow, as the subtitles indicate the speaker’s identity, but Kurilov’s well-contrived physical actions succeed.

As for Myshkin, played by Kalinichev, the task is more difficult. Myshkin was written as a positive, honorable character, likely Dostoyevsky’s titular idiot. At the start, Kalinichev’s performance is understated to the point of being unmemorable. But when he interacts with Nastasya Filippovna, voiced briefly by Kurilov, we see him fumble over words and speak with excruciating restraint. Myshkin suffers from epilepsy, and Kalinichev gives a phenomenal portrayal of a seizure, while Kurilov straddles him in an attempt to contain his flailing limbs.

Nastasya Filippovna, in its subtitled version, is supposedly an improvisation, with blocks of plot rearranged by the actors on the fly. Yet that didn’t seem to be the case in Wednesday’s performance: The novel’s segments, projected onto the back wall, matched the order listed in the program, and little was said in Russian that was not translated into English. (Those wanting true improvisation can attend the Sunday matinee, which will be performed without English subtitles—and may also stretch to three hours, sans intermission. You’ve been warned.) But I’m willing to overlook the embellishments. As Myshkin explains in The Idiot, “In order to reach perfection, one must begin by being ignorant of a great deal.”

GO: Nastasya Filippovna is at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison St., 241-1278. 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday, 2 pm Sunday, Jan. 10-13. Sunday's show will be performed without subtitles. $25.