Trinity Rep's "Crime and Punishment": Theatrical Cliff Notes?

One could be forgiven for fearing that Trinity Rep’s latest production, a ninety-minute three-hander distillation of the 700 page novel “Crime and Punishment” by Dostoyevsky, might end up like a theatrical cliff notes version, or worse yet, a Classic Comic Book. Happily, it’s neither of these, but an intensely spare adaptation that effectively focuses on the main themes of its source material. The book was adapted about a decade ago by Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus (Trinity Rep’s Artistic Director) while based in Chicago. From the first line of the play, “Do you believe in Lazarus, rising from the dead?”, repeated several more times during the work, it becomes clear that, in Columbus’ own description, the intention was to burn the text down to its essentials. The fundamental questions of the existence of God, and whether a supreme being is found in man, as well as the possibility of confession and redemption, are all here, in simple yet poetic form. Dostoyevsky’s protagonist Raskolnikov (stunningly played here by Stephen Thorne) lives in a world filled with anonymity, and he longs to regain his place in a life filled with few options, with growing ambivalence about his initial theory that certain “extra-ordinary” people can be above the common law.

As directed by Brian Mertes, the other two members of this small cast, Rachel Christopher as Sonia the prostitute and others (Alyona Ivanova, the greedy old moneylender; Lizareta, her innocent sister; Raskolnikov’s mother) and Dan Butler as the detective Porfiry and others (Sonia’s drunken & pitiful father; a tradesman; a client of Sonia’s) are equally terrific. Christopher can be vulnerable and pitiable one moment, evil and manipulative the next. Butler moves easily from the harsh inquisitor (he of the “free form” investigation wherein you “never know what’s going to lead you to an answer”) to the opposite end of the human spectrum, the protagonist’s conscience. Throughout, Thorne plays the sole role of Raskolnikov with all of the necessary rage and doubt at his core. One fact that is never in doubt, however, is his basic guilt as a murderer, who eventually comes to the realization that such a crime can only be redeemed by God and love. In the interim, all three cast members inhabit the length and breadth of the small stage, often breaking down the fourth wall to address and even confront the audience. It’s a compelling and courageous approach to the deeper complexities of a universal story told with such poetic simplicity.

Would that the production team had followed this lead. Instead, we are confronted, and sometimes assaulted, both visually and audibly, by what can only be described as virtually non-stop distractions that threaten to derail one’s train of thought and focus. The Set Design by Eugene Lee, in contrast to his contribution in a prior production which is described as a starkly white stage with a sole crucifix, is here a study in Early Eclectic style, filling (no, cluttering) the stage with unnecessarily busy stuff, including seemingly enough extraneous furniture to fill a warehouse and enough electronic gimmickry for a rock concert. Then there’s the Sound Design by Broken Chord, ranging from rock music to “Claire de Lune”, with many an odd blast or bleep along the way, which sounded as though audience members had neglected to silence their personal devices. (Note to sound designers: this is as distracting when planned as it is when random). The clever Costume Design by Olivera Gajic allows the cast to transition quickly from one character to another, and the Lighting Design by Dan Scully is very effectively coordinated.

This pared-down version of Dostoyevsky’s morality tale is extremely moving, as we see the initial confidence of the murderer begin to crack. As he intones, God indeed confers peace upon the dead, “but the living suffer”. At the end of the play, when asked if he believes in God, he responds with another question, “Does it matter?”, and the answer to his question is an ambiguous “It might”. Nothing is certain in this work, especially redemption, but what is certain is that writers, actors and a director, all at the top of their game, deliver a truly profound piece of theater.

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