Adapted by Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus from the novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Produced by Round House Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Aubrey Deeker (as Raskolnikov) and Mitchell Hébert (as Porfiry) Photo: Stan Barouh
“God gives grace to the dead,” says Raskolnikov (Aubrey Deeker), again and again. Though he does not believe in God, does not believe in grace, and has no idea what it’s like to be dead, it is his mantra – the one he chants to ward off his past. Intense, fierce, nearly hallucinatory, Round House’s Crime and Punishment is one man’s inward-gazing, reflective, reflexive journey through hell.
It is a brave writer’s task to turn Dostoyevsky’s massive, discursive classic into theater, and Campbell and Columbus take it on by going to the novel’s moral heart. The miserly pawnbroker, Alyona Ivanovna (Tonya Beckman Ross) and her childlike sister Lizaveta (Ross again) are already dead as the play opens. Raskolnikov sits on a massive metal chair – the sole set piece, for the entire play – and answers questions for Inspector Porfiry (Mitchell Hébert).
“Do you believe in the story of Lazarus?” is the first question.
There is no evidence, as that term is traditionally used, against Raskolnikov (the name means “schism” in Russian). Indeed, in a testament to the terrifying efficiency of the Tsarist police, someone else has already confessed to the murders.
“Do you believe in God?” Porfiry asks.
Raskolnikov believes in the Neitzschean übermann, the “extraordinary man” whose greatness makes him immune to the judgment that would fall upon the crimes of ordinary men. Napoleon – Newton – to achieve as those men achieved would justify any crime, even murder. But is Raskolnikov himself an extraordinary man? If so, why is he living in a single room underneath the stairs, so small that he cannot even stand up in it, where his nose is assaulted every day with the stenches of St. Petersburg? Why is he unable to find work? Why is he so impoverished that he must pawn his most valuable possessions for food – his ring for two rubles; his father’s watch for a ruble and a half, with interest up front?
Porfiry’s mission, of course, is to find out who killed the Ivanovna sisters, but his technique is to first find out who Raskolnikov is. Raskolnikov, and the production, oblige him and us through dialogue and flashback. He is, first of all, a man of promise, sent from the countryside by his optimistic mother (Ross again) to make his fortune as a teacher and to study the law. He is also a failure, unemployed, full of excuses (his inadequate beggarly dress, the world’s general distaste for knowledge, and so on). He is a gentle, generous man, coming to the aid of a local drunk in distress (Hébert again) and, when the time comes, using all his money to pay for the man’s funeral. He is a romantic man, coming to love the drunk’s daughter Sonia (Ross again, in her principal role), who has been forced by circumstances to sell her body.
And he is a murderer.
Round House’s doubling and tripling of roles, traditionally done as a matter of theater economics, here intensifies and inflames the story. Porfiry and Sonia seem to inhabit every corner of Raskolnikov’s world, driving him to his inevitable confession. But Deeker, cast in only one role, seems to be all the Raskolnikovs at once, howling and thrashing against his true enemy, himself. When he finally confesses, first to Sonia and then to Porfiry, relief rises from him like steam, and he is one body at last.
Crime and Punishment is not a whodunit. It is a whydunit, and the character who needs to know is not Porfiry but Raskolnikov himself. Round House – by which I mean director Blake Robison and the cast, as well as the excellent technical crew (Matthew Neilson’s sound is particularly strong) – understands this, and the production tracks Raskolnikov’s wounded soul like a hound following a blood trail. It is almost irrelevant to issue individual praise for ensemble work this good, but Ross economically brings great specificity to four very different roles.
Particularly since Robison’s assumption of the Artistic Director’s position, Round House has given voice to plays which, like Crime and Punishment, explore complicated moral questions through dialogue and argument. This is a bold thing to do in a society which has become inured to the slasher movie and the blow-’em-up newscast, but when, as here, it is done with dispatch and sureness it is absolutely satisfying.
Round House Theatre, you the theater!
(Running time: 1:30 without intermission) Crime and Punishment continues Wednesdays through Sundays at the Round House Theatre – Bethesda (4545 East-West Highway) until April 29. Wednesday shows are at 7.30; Thursdays through Saturdays at 8; Saturdays and Sundays at 3. Tickets: $25 – $55. To order, call 240.644.1100 or visit their website.