Compression Lessons 

Dostoyevsky's themes resonate in Berkeley Rep's new adaptation of Crime and Punishment.

The easiest lesson to glean from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's 1866 novel Crime and Punishment is that if you're a penniless intellectual living in a poorly insulated garret in St. Petersburg, Russia, and you decide to axe-murder a miserly pawnbroker for her money, don't go murdering her innocent sister, too. And if you do happen to murder both of them, don't say that you were wholly justified in the case of the pawnbroker, and that the sister was — oops, kind of an accident, my bad. And if you do justify one murder and apologize for the other, then don't go comparing yourself to Napoleon, saying that it's okay to axe-murder one social parasite if you plan to use the spoils for a better cause (like, say, burying them under a rock).

The easiest lesson to glean from Berkeley Rep's new production of Crime and Punishment, directed by Sharon Ott based on the adaptation by Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus, is that Dostoyevsky's 600-page morality tale can indeed be encapsulated in ninety minutes with no intermission. Also, doors make really awesome set pieces when you paint them blue and stack them around the stage.

Compression is the operating principle here, not only time-wise but space-wise. The stage is enclosed by two huge walls, each comprised of about twenty blue doors that are stacked together cheek-by-jowl. It's not exactly clear what type of portal symbolism the set designers were going for (Liberation? The perilous unknown?) but the effect is one of a blue wall caving in. Only three characters populate this version of the play, each of whom represents a theme rather than a flesh-and-blood person. Raskolnikov, played chillingly by Tyler Pierce, is the protagonist with the Napoleon complex, who commits murder as an intellectual exercise. Sonia (Delia MacDougall) is the self-abnegating prostitute next door who becomes Raskolnikov's one-way spiritual advisor. The Porfiry (played by J.R. Horne as a jocular, Santa Claus-ish character) is the one who ultimately casts judgment, after subjecting Raskolnikov to a brittle cross-examination. But he also offers the road to redemption.

Naturally, we lose some of Crime and Punishment's plot twists with the new configuration, but it creates a lot of dramatic tension. Campbell and Columbus obviously know what shortcuts to take for maximum impact. The script uses recurring symbols and lines (i.e., the Porfiry's question, "Do you believe in Lazarus rising from the dead?") to underscore the god/man/mortality/redemption subtext. Their Crime and Punishment has a Memento-like structure, beginning with an interrogation, recounting the crime in a fragmented way, and creating a paranoid sense of time running out. There are no discernible scenes (from an audience perspective, at least) — rather, characters scuttle in and out of the various doors to interact with Raskolnikov, who stays on stage for the entire play.

Thus, the stage not only becomes a physical prison (in the form of an interrogation room or a cramped apartment) — it's also a prison of denial, and a visual representation of Raskolnikov's mind. At one point, he breaks the third wall and appeals to the audience, asking us to either condemn or exonerate him. He asks if one crime — the murder of a spiteful, horrible, sadistic old woman — could be wiped out by thousands of good deeds. What those "good deeds" are remains open to interpretation, but moral ambiguity was Dostoyevsky's intent. Raskolnikov is a sympathetic character because he's desperate and irrational, not because his line of reasoning makes any sense.

Pierce is creepy as the play's moral compass, although his acting gets eclipsed by Horne, who has exactly the right mix of pity and scorn to play Dostoyevsky's Porfiry. (Granted, he also gets all the best lines.) MacDougal is an aggregate of all the female roles (virtuous Sonia, the sadistic pawnbroker, and her pathetic sister Lizaveta, none of whom comes across as particularly likeable. Yet, between the two male actors we get a real harrowing sense of the murderer's psychology.

Dostoyevsky's original Crime and Punishment was pretty specific to 19th-century Russia, and the ideas he engaged (about the dangers of abandoning faith for rationalism) might ring hollow to a non-19th century Russian — or, for that matter, anyone other than a literature major. But many aspects of the play would resonate with a modern audience, especially in a new era of desperation and scarcity. (Watch how many people nod their heads when Raskolnikov complains about his apartment being unbearably cold in the winter, and unbearably hot in the summer — but always unbearable.) Not to mention it's always fun to see two people get murdered with an axe.


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