Crime and Punishment

Writers’ Theatre

The idea of turning Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment into a play is laughable. This sprawling novel is stuffed with seemingly endless conversations about the nature of madness, evil, and salvation and even longer minute descriptions of its protagonist, the poor, obsessed, mentally unstable student Raskolnikov, who kills a pawnbroker and her sister. Yet Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus have turned it into a play, and a very good one at that, for Glencoe’s Writers’ Theatre. They even managed to boil the novel down to a concentrated 90 minutes of stage time.

Fortunately Campbell and Columbus did not adopt Robert Breen’s chamber-theater approach, in which characters speak both the dialogue and the narration. This technique seems to guarantee that even short novels become long plays, and long novels turn into excerpts comprehensible only to those who’ve read the book. Lookingglass Theatre’s bracing, intensely acted, but often incoherent stage version of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot showed why this writer’s work is particularly ill suited to the Breen style of adaptation. The problem isn’t just the length of the novels but their density and digressions.

Dostoyevsky wrote many of his works quickly, hoping to make the money to pay off his debts. As Vladimir Nabokov notes in his Lectures on Russian Literature, Dostoyevsky seldom reread what he’d written or reshaped the beginning of a novel to accommodate later changes. Indeed, the complexity of Dostoyevsky’s characters may well have had something to do with his hectic writing schedule. If a character contradicts himself, very well: he contains multitudes. Even the relatively simple arc of the story in Crime and Punishment–Raskolnikov feels guilty about the murders and confesses under the combined influence of a sympathetic female friend and a prying police detective–might also be an artifact of Dostoyevsky’s haste. A no-frills story helps ensure that a novel won’t go off track.

The beauty of Campbell and Columbus’s adaptation is that they don’t feel obligated to carry all of Dostoyevsky’s narrative baggage–to be entirely faithful to the original. Instead they’ve fashioned a whole new work from it, one that stands on its own. They’ve reduced the novel’s vast array of characters to seven, played by three actors, and focused on the period when Raskolnikov is driven to confess.

Columbus has attempted this radical form of adaptation before, in Sis3ters, based on Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters and produced last fall by Roadworks. Sis3ters was a bold theatrical experiment, but ultimately it failed: it depended on audiences knowing the original and caring about it as deeply as Columbus did. Working with Campbell, Columbus makes no such assumptions. Instead the two of them borrow techniques from the movies, hooking us early with a series of short, enigmatic, expressionistic scenes–coming attractions, as it were, for the play we’re about to see. Then they keep us on the edge of our seats by slowly revealing Raskolnikov’s story: his horrible crime, the eccentric romance that flowers between him and a prostitute, Sonya, and the weird cat-and-mouse game police inspector Porfiry Petrovich plays with him. In brief scenes that recur with variations–Raskolnikov being questioned by the inspector, for example, about his belief in resurrection–we see this thief and murderer fall apart, hit bottom, and begin the process of redemption.

Fortunately Campbell and Columbus are faithful when it suits the play. Nabokov (who loathed Dostoyevsky’s novels, comparing them to middlebrow best-sellers like From Here to Eternity) once quipped that Dostoyevsky seemed destined “to become Russia’s greatest playwright, but he took the wrong turning and wrote novels.” Campbell and Columbus pluck Dostoyevsky’s characters from the muck of his narration and transplant them to the cleaner context of the stage, where they thrive. Their adaptation is both more clinical and more subjective than the novel: whatever we see onstage seems to be taking place in Raskolnikov’s mind, but we’re never told how to think about him. Essentially a two-man drama focusing on the interactions between Raskolnikov and the police inspector, this Crime and Punishment makes inspectors of us all.

Director Michael Halberstam is one of those rare individuals who wears his erudition lightly. Judging by past productions of Shakespeare and Shaw, he knows his classics backward and forward but doesn’t feel obligated to bludgeon us with his knowledge. His direction of Crime and Punishment is sensitive and intelligent without calling attention to itself. Halberstam also boldly goes wherever the text leads. Both the novel and the adaptation have strong Christian elements. During Dostoyevsky’s years in Siberia, where he was sent for being a political radical, he found Jesus, and spent the rest of his life obsessed with sin and redemption and caught in a love-hate relationship with God and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Neither the novel nor the adaptation is Christian propaganda, but much of the production’s power comes from the way it embraces Dostoyevsky’s central question: whether Raskolnikov does–or should–believe in God, redemption, and resurrection. Halberstam never skirts these spiritual issues, nor does he trivialize them. In fact every element of his production reinforces these themes. The spare, dark set (by Heather Graff and Richard Peterson) mirrors the anguish Raskolnikov feels. Joel Moritz’s lighting design is so filled with shadows it might be better described as a darkness design, each spotlit performance emphasizing that we’re mere sparks in an endless void.

The ensemble members match the intensity of the script and the production. Scott Parkinson in particular makes a terrific Raskolnikov: without seeming self-indulgent, he shows in every gesture, grimace, and twitch that this is a tortured soul. John Judd plays both Sonya’s father and the inspector; speaking in low, comforting tones, his policeman is the perfect foil to Parkinson’s frantic, monomaniacal Raskolnikov. Though we know from the moment Porfiry begins stalking Raskolnikov that he’ll be swept into the inspector’s clutches, watching it happen is fascinating, and Judd shows so much conviction that we believe Porfiry believes that capturing Raskolnikov will save the killer’s soul. Susan Bennett is just as accomplished in her roles as the twisted pawnbroker, her innocent sister, Raskolnikov’s idealized mother, and Sonya.

By cutting much of the novel, and shortening and provocatively juxtaposing the scenes we do see, Campbell and Columbus crystallize the ambiguities and contradictions of the original. Moreover, they convey the essential drama of confession in an age not congenial to religious dogma and heighten our sense of Raskolnikov as a figure to be both pitied and feared. To have honed a masterpiece–now that’s something not every adapter has done.