PacRep’s Crime and Punishment rewards the earnest audience member.
Thursday, April 8, 2010
“Do you believe in Lazarus, rising from the dead?” Police Inspector Porfiry asks criminal suspect Raskolnikov during a lengthy and twisty interrogation. “Do you believe in God?”
“Does it matter?” Raskolnikov replies.
“It might,” Porfiry says.
And it will. As will conscience, morality, justice and poverty, all examined through Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
When he died in 1881, Dostoevsky was a literary national hero in his native Russia. But for much of his early life, he lived in debilitating, degrading poverty, which informs his later, masterful period in which he produced Notes from the Underground and Crime and Punishment. The latter was adapted for the stage by Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus, and their work hews close to the core of the novel, necessarily stripping away some of Dostoevsky’s narrative strands and abundance of characters.
PacRep’s production, directed by Kenneth Kelleher, finds three actors playing eight roles. The most significant is Raskolnikov (Remi Sandri), a reclusive, destitute law school drop-out living in St. Petersburg, Russia. He’s working out a thesis of political/philosophical thought while squeezing a meager life out of the money sent to him from his poor mother. We first meet him as he’s being interrogated by Inspector Porfiry (Jeffrey T. Heyer) in his sparse room, recreated here with rough floorboards, two chairs, a natty day bed and a washbasin. There’s been a crime – the double murder of miserly pawnbroker Alyona and her guileless sister Lizaveta, both played by Emily Jordan. Jordan also plays in Sonia, a Christian young woman who’s had to take “work” as a prostitute to support her parents and siblings.
Raskolnikov, in most ways a misanthrope, harbors a reverence for Sonia because she “transcends” society’s rules and sacrifices herself for others in Christ-like fashion. Raskolnikov would like to see himself that way, too, but he thinks he’s above the “insects” around him. He tries to live according to the creed that the “extraordinary” person is not subject to the same rules and morality as the “ordinary” person – they transcend them, re-arrange them, leading the masses to their next evolution, even if that means breaking the law. He wrote as much in an article, which has tipped off Inspector Porfiry to the young man’s mental state, and singled him out as a suspect.
The interrogation serves as the narrative skeleton for the rest of the story to embellish in cleverly segued flashbacks. Raskolnikov, sickened by his destitution, at the “stench of alcohol and vomit,” the holes in his shoes, and the cold of winter and heat of summer, decides to kill and rob the “parasitic” pawnbroker Alyona. He reasons that the woman is old and mean, he is young and needy, and that her money could help others instead of being squandered to her selfish whims. This isn’t a whodunit as much as it’s a whydunit.
“All great leaders,” he tells Porfiry in one of their many cat-and-mouse exchanges, are granted the right to “transgress the law” to “advance their ideas.”
Porfiry, wily and inscrutable, is fascinated by his ideas. History has been, too. Starting with Kierkegaard, that idea, twisted and subverted from its lineage through Nietzsche, found a roost in Hitler, but made a brighter, wider, humanistic pathway through the civil disobedience of Mahatma Ghandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. The play’s not all theory, though. Dostoevsky wrote in the mathematics of poverty, counting the meager rubles and kopeks that represent the sliver of a margin by which poor people live.
Sandri plays Raskolnikov as a lanky, melodramatic tempest, deliriously fervent and tortured. But his performance is pitched, incongruously, at a higher intensity than the rest of the modulated cast, especially the cool cucumber of Porfiry, played with precision by Heyer. Jordan is a fairy tale caricature as the pawnbroker Alyonda, but solid as the soothing balm of martyrdom and matriarchy in prostitute Sonia. When she confides in Raskolnikov about her “work” (“I go out at 6pm to find… I’m finished by 9pm”), Jordan gives her vulnerability and strength. Sonia’s father, Marmelodov, played with painful pathos by, also, Heyer, stumbles into scenes drunk, clutching a bottle he bought with money his daughter earned. And it tears him up.
Three doors, suspended around the stage, serve as portals to various scenes, jumping from Porfiry’s office to Alyona’s home to the dreaming mind of Raskolnikov, back to his room again.
There is no intermission in the 80-minute play and none is needed. It rarely drags. It’s dense and shifting, flowing from inner monologue to disembodied voiceovers, flashbacks to recurring motifs, so it can lose a casual viewer. It requires deliberation and afterthought, but it rewards the effort.