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Crime and Punishment

Dostoevsky’s philosophical tome streamlined into gripping 90-minute one-act

Photo: Richard Anderson, License: N/A, Created: 2011:04:12 19:37:28

Richard Anderson

Eric Feldman ponders what to do with Lauren Culpepper.

Crime and Punishment

Adapted by Curt Columbus and Marilyn Campbell from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel.

At Center Stage through May 15

It’s hard to imagine a literary classic less suited for the stage. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, despite its dramatic title, is long on discourse and short on action. The story of a man who takes his radical ideology to its bloody extreme is less about the murder he commits than about the moral anguish he subsequently undergoes. In print, that obviously has not presented a problem. Onstage, though, all that internal indecision has the potential to be pretty yawn-inducing.

Not so with Center Stage’s current production. The 90-minute intermission-free play is a creative, ambitious take on the novel. And interestingly, this adaptation, by Curt Columbus and Marilyn Campbell, actually strips the story down to its bare bones, rather than attempting to heighten the action. Raskolnikov (Eric Feldman), an impoverished student who has abandoned his studies, lives in a St. Petersburg tenement. He has been selling off his belongings to a pawnbroker, an old woman he detests. He decides to kill her and take her money, arguing that some people are superior to others and even have the right to commit murder if it allows them to accomplish something for the betterment of the world. Along the way he meets Sonia (Lauren Culpepper), a prostitute who sells herself to support her family, and Sonia’s father (John Leonard Thompson), a shiftless drunk who eventually dies. (In his case, Raskolnikov is sympathetic, and donates all his money for the funeral.) Following the murder—from which Raskolnikov obtains little money—Porfiry (also Thompson), a detective, tries to extract a confession from Raskolnikov.

Missing from the production are a suite of other characters who appear in the book, including Raskolnikov’s mother—who does appear here, but only as a memory—his sister, various admirers of his sister’s, and his friend Razumihin. The remaining characters—barring Raskolnikov—are all played by Culpepper and Thompson. With minimal costume changes, Thompson is both the inspector and Sonia’s father. Culpepper morphs from Sonia to the old pawnbroker to the old pawnbroker’s half-sister to Raskolnikov’s mother. The result is so intimate as to be suffocating, as Raskolnikov grapples with what he has done in the company of a small revolving cast that, through the members’ resemblance to one another, seems only to illuminate his lack of empathy and the limits of his utilitarian outlook.

Feldman does a fine job as Raskolnikov, a man with a “heart unhinged by theories,” as Porfiry puts it. He begins with the self-assurance and bravado of a young man caught up in the thrall of his ideas, and is by the end a nervous, self-destructive wreck, having begun to doubt them. In a state of perpetual unease—which gives rise to a good deal of pacing and gesticulating—he bursts periodically into rants that are the most visible indication of the battle within. As his interrogator, Thompson is brilliant; the play’s only funny moments come during the bait and switch he performs in an attempt to draw out a confession. At one point, Porfiry speaks admiringly of an essay of Raskolnikov’s. “Are there a lot of these extraordinary people who have a right to kill?” he asks, as if purely out of philosophical interest. Raskolnikov responds that there are very few. “Could I be one? Could you?” Porfiry muses, as Raskolnikov grows ever more tense.

Culpepper, while less of a standout, does her various characters justice. Her Sonia comes across as moral above all, despite her chosen profession, and her simple goodness makes for a counterpoint to Raskolnikov’s muddied sense of right and wrong.

The set is spare, with a wooden thrust stage, a desk and chair, a cot, and a long looming flight of stairs leading up into the rigging. Characters emerge from all levels—from the stairs, from a hole in the floor, and from a closet-like structure that serves as a front door—making an otherwise static production dynamic. The action is continuous, with no scene breaks, and unlike the novel, time is a bit fluid here.

It begins with Porfiry’s first interrogation of Raskolnikov and doubles back to the murder and other incidents as Raskolnikov relates them. When the action switches from his relation of a thing to the thing itself, the lighting changes accordingly. And when it comes back to a scene after such an interlude, the characters often repeat the lines they last spoke, as if to situate us once more in time. It’s an effective and lively presentation, heightened by the lighting—a harsh floodlight when Raskolnikov is with the detective, a moodier yellow when he is home—and music so minimal and quiet it seems to come from another room. The set is used to greatest effect during the actual murder: Raskolnikov raises his ax, a bell tolls loudly, and a flash of light illuminates an entirely new portion of the set at the back of the stage, an area previously in darkness. It’s a vivid, shocking scene, like something out of Raskolnikov’s own troubled conscience.

Center Stage’s Crime and Punishment is necessarily a sort of shorthand for Dostoevksy’s meticulous portrayal of the steps that lead a man of ideals to murder, and the psychological torture that follows. The characters in the play don’t have the depth and believability of those in the book, and the absence of supporting characters—some of whom influence Raskolnikov’s actions in the novel—make it harder to follow his twisted line of reasoning. But judged on its own merits, the production draws the viewer in, provoking and disturbing in equal measure. And for a tale like this one, that is high praise.

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