Sunday, November 11, 2007

PLAY: "Crime and Punishment"

Photo/Courtesy of Writers' Theatre

Adaptations of stories rarely work, especially when they're epic, psychological romps through a tortured psyche, as is the case with Dostoevsky's classic Crime and Punishment. But Chicago's Writers' Theatre doesn't bother trying to fit the novel onto the stage; instead, Eugene Lee's set focuses the action with a cramped series of asylum-like doors that pin Raskolnikov, like some rare butterfly, beneath high-vaulted buckets of light and two low-hanging, interrogative ceiling lamps. The story does away with the third-person narrative and traps us beside the tortured intellectual as his mind punishes him -- physically and mentally -- for his murderous sin. For emphasis, Jesus hangs from a large cross, silently observing through his own blessed pain.

What Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus have accomplished is an abridgment that lends a real dramatic arc to the structure, doubling back for emphasis on the keys to Raskolnikov's salvation (the redemptive Lazarus) or replaying, in slow motion and shuddering gasps, our hero's double homicide. As for director Michael Halberstam, by simplifying the murders to their implications and clothes-strewn, body-twitching aftermath, he enables us, as did Dostoevsky, to still relate to this troubled protagonist, a man at odds with his own convoluted theories of the extraordinary people (like Newton, like Napoleon) who are entitled to kill for the greater good, and of his own simultaneous desire to be so transcendentally powerful. (He is, as costumer Theresa Squire never lets us forget, one step from vagrancy.)

The final key in the production is Raskolnikov himself, played by an endearingly restrained and soft-spoken Scott Parkinson. He stands in a reductive way that makes him seem to take up even less space, and he slumps against walls with a visible shudder (that "cold shiver of murder"). Halberstam often uses the revolving walls to strand Raskolnikov alone, without his beloved Sonia (Susan Bennett), his would-be confessor, or free of Porfiry Petrovich (John Judd), his equally calm and mannered pursuer (think of a more patient Javert). At times like this, Raskolnikov pleads directly with us, trying to convince us of the convictions it is clear he no longer holds, pushing off his cold nightmares onto us. (Though it is too early, the ghostly flickering of the Keith Parham's lights bring to mind the foreboding atmosphere of death row.)

Crime and Punishment isn't epic anymore; it's essential. The play is direct and haunting, relevant and true, and filled with the kind of introspection rarely seen outside of Shakespearean tragedy. And best of all, because it so fairly depicts the complex ideas discussed by Dostoevsky, it makes the audience want to rush out and buy a copy of this fantastic novel. As Writers' Theater grows, Oprah may need to watch her back.

No comments: