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Vol. LXIII, No. 49
 
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
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Music/Theater

A Detective Story, Psycho-Drama, Morality Tale for Three Actors, Intime Features 90-Minute Adaptation of “Crime and Punishment:”

Donald Gilpin

“Good god! Can it be, can it be, that I shall really take an axe, that I shall strike her on the head, split her skull open … that I shall tread in the sticky warm blood … with the axe … Good god, can it be?”

Neither Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1866 classic novel Crime and Punishment nor the scaled down, 90-minute dramatic adaptation by Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus currently playing at Princeton University’s Theatre Intime is for the faint of heart. The story of the destitute student Raskolnikov, who—considering himself one of the “extraordinary” people who can ignore everyday laws in pursuit of what he considers a higher good, murders two women with an axe then suffers the psychological consequences, is dark and troubling. Both novel and play challenge the intellect, the emotions, and the ethics of their readers and audience.

But if you have already overdosed on cute elves, dancing reindeer, jolly old Santas and other cloying excesses of the season, you might be ready for a sobering infusion of Dostoyevsky’s harrowing psychological and spiritual journey through the mind of the murderous Raskolnikov, one of the great characters of western literature.

The 2003 adaptation, presented by a cast of just three Princeton University undergraduates under the direction of sophomore Ryan Serrano, captures a taste of the intensity and spirit of the 500-page novel, though Dostoyevsky purists, along with anyone hoping for upbeat entertainment in the spirit of the season, may experience some disappointments here.

This sharply focused, abridged version of the novel takes place in the mind of Raskolnikov (Brad Baron), as he explores and relives his thoughts, feelings, and experiences leading up to and following his crime. The simple, stark set serves as an interrogation room with table and chair stage right for the detective Porfiry Petrovich (Daniel Rattner), and a cramped apartment, with bed and chair stage left for either Raskolnikov or Sonya (Carolyn Vasko). Upstage center a raised platform and third door represent the entrance to the pawnbroker’s apartment and Raskolnikov’s childhood home. In addition to the central role of Sonya, Ms. Vasko, with a supplementary scarf or shawl, also skillfully takes on the characters of the pawnbroker woman, her half sister and Raskolnikov’s mother. Mr. Rattner, in addition to Porfiry, also plays the part of Marmeladov, Sonya’s father whom Raskolnikov befriends.

“Crime and Punishment” will run December 10-12, Thursday through Saturday, with performances at 8 p.m. and a 2 p.m. matinee on December 12 at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. Call 609-258-1742 or visit www.princeton.edu/utickets for tickets.

Most scene changes take place through the slamming of a door, as Porfiry or Sonya exits, and the lighting, designed by Alexandra Mannix, shifts to focus on the opposite side of the stage or on Raskolnikov alone at center stage.

Mr. Baron’s Raskolnikov looks the part — tall, angular, dark, ragged, unshaven. He’s nervous, edgy, subject to bursts of self-confidence as well as sudden fits of despair and anger. Unfortunately the pared down script makes character development a challenge here, and this Raskolnikov is constantly at a high pitched state, with little variation of tone. Mr. Baron’s high-energy, well rehearsed, at times captivating performance does not provide much nuance or three-dimensionality in the character, and the emotional levels run from intense to more intense. This protagonist is difficult to sympathize with, and at times difficult to believe.

Raskolnikov’s psychological discussions with Mr. Rattner’s Porfiry provide an intriguing intellectual duel. Porfiry brings out a theory, published by the young Raskolnikov, in which the scholarly young man pre-figures his own crime in describing the illness that accompanies a crime and the right of “extraordinary men … to commit any crime and to transgress the law in any way, just because they are extraordinary,” and, of course because they see themselves pursuing a “plan which might be of benefit to the whole of humanity.” The psycho-drama/detective investigation fascinates, though the youthful Mr. Rattner is less than credible in making the character stretch necessary to embody the well-seasoned, middle-aged police inspector.

Ms. Vasko’s Sonia (which means “wisdom” in Russian), forced into prostitution to earn money for her stepmother and drunken father, meets Raskolnikov as her family’s benefactor, later learns of his crime and fights to bring the protagonist out of his dark nihilistic rationalism into a state of redemption. “o at once, this very minute, stand at the crossroads, bow down, first kiss the earth which you have defiled, and then bow down to all the world and say to all men aloud, ‘I am a murderer!’ Then god will send you life again. Will you go, will you go?”

Ms. Vasko, in another intense performance, convincingly portrays the frail, victimized young woman, angel and harlot. Her voice becomes a bit thin — at times difficult to hear, but her fervent interactions with the murderer, including a late night Bible reading of the raising of Lazarus from the dead, deliver powerful, memorable moments in the show.

Mr. Serrano has directed with flair and a shrewd sense of pacing, maintaining the high energy level that reflects the mind of the protagonist and at the same time moves the action along swiftly from scene to scene. The staging is clear and effective. What will enrich the production in its second, final weekend are a bit more variety in emotional levels and intensity, a bit less melodrama and a bit more subtlety and nuance in the characters and their interactions.

Missing here are many minor characters and a few major ones, including Raskolnikov’s beleaguered sister, his steadfast friend Razumikhin, and his sister’s depraved suitor Svidrigailov. A number of subplots of the novel have also been cut, and the experience does lack much of the richness of texture of the novel.

It won’t enhance the festive holiday spirit. It won’t hold up favorably in comparison to a reading or re-reading of Dostoyevsky’s great masterpiece, but Theatre Intime’s Crime and Punishment is worth seeing in its own right — an ambitious adaptation of the original classic and a thought-provoking, high-energy mix of detective story, morality tale and psycho-drama.

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