Saturday, March 07, 2009

Crime and Punishment

‘CRIME AND PUNISHMENT,’ deep, dark and impressive at CPH

It’s a pretty mind-blowing task to perceive that Fydor Dostoevsky’s ‘CRIME AND PUNISHMENT,’ a long and complex 1864 novel, could be made into a 90-minute play, yet alone, be successful. Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus, undertook the task, and their successful proof is now on stage at the Cleveland Play House.

The novel, which was originally published in 12 monthly installments in a Russian literary journal, focuses on the mental anguish of Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, an impoverished St. Petersburg law school dropout, who kills an unscrupulous pawnbroker seemingly for her money, thereby solving his financial problems. In the process of his angst he meets Sonia, a prostitute full of Christian virtue, driven into the profession by the habits of her father. (Remember this is a typical nineteenth century Russian novel which carries the tradition of overblown melodramatic stories, lots of complex characters, and flowing prose.)

For those who read the epic, don’t go into the CPH experience expecting fidelity to the novel. One of the major differences is the dropping of the Epilogue in which Raskolnivok, after he confesses, is sent to Siberia. Sonya follows, and the tale ends with a moralistic message of hope and redemption.

Unfortunately, cutting some background, may leave the audience unaware of the moralistic motivation for the murders (there is an additional person killed besides the pawnbroker), other than Raskolnivok’s need for money. That’s not his motive, as he gives away, not only this money, but all money he gets to others. Raskolnikov believes that the murder is permissible in pursuit of a higher purpose, since he has rid the world of an evil parasite. Another issue may be the question of why our protagonist gives himself up when there is no evidence leading to him as the slayer.

Despite its seemingly obvious title, the script does not so much deal with the crime and its formal punishment, as with the protagonist’s internal struggle which shows that his penalty results more from his conscience than from the law.

Note that Dostoevsky’s writing preceded the time of Freud, so much of the author’s astute underlying psychological concepts were way ahead of the thinking of the time.

The CPH production, under the adept directing of Anders Cato, is compelling. The staging is aided by Lee Savage’s dark and cramped setting with the Christ figure hanging above the action, as well as Jeff Davis’s lighting. Olivera Gajic’s costuming incites a question. Why is Raskolnikov dressed in white garments rather than sac-cloth clothing, the sign of both having no money and being a self-conceived martyr?

Paul Anthony Stewart is a fascinating Raskolnikov. He is intense, almost maniacal at times, while reclusive and internally torn at others. This is a very effective textured performance.

Patrick Husted, not only plays Porfiry, the detective, but all of the other male parts. Though he is quite good as the detective, a portrayal more in the format of TV’s Columbo might have been more appropriate. As portrayed by Husted, we are never sure whether he is setting up Raskolnikov or really doesn’t know he is the murderer. Using the Columbo approach would have allowed the audience to be aware of the subtle trickery he was performing.

The characterization of Sonia, due to a lack of exposition in the script, and the cutting of the Prologue, does not give Lethia Nall much latitude in developing the role. There is not enough emotional texturing for us to get a clear picture of Sonia’s role in aiding Raskolnikov make a major life decision nor her later effect on him.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: CPH’s ‘CRIME AND PUNISHMENT’ is a dark and compelling production. Even for those who don’t like their theatre heavy and talky, viewing this production is well worth the effort. Put this offering on your “must see” list.