note: entire contents copyright 2015 by Sheila Barth
It’s no small feat to stage Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s convoluted, classic novel of crime and retribution. The novel was originally published in 12 monthly installments in a Russian literary journal, The Russian Messenger, in 1866, and later in a single volume, after the author’s return from a 10-year exile in Siberia. The story is rife with symbolism, many primary, secondary, and tertiary characters, and a timeless plot that resonates even louder in today’s society.
Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus’ 2007, one-act, award-winning theater adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s “conversation on the nature of evil,” takes a contemporary tact, probing into the conscience and subconscious of the classic masterpiece’s handsome, 23-year-old former law student, Rodion Raskolnikov. Bitter, impoverished, and beaten down, Raskolnikov’s desperation drives him to commit murder. Then, he rationalizes his heinous act is justified, because it enables him to commit kindly acts. As his guilt weighs more heavily on his conscience, he seeks redemption.
In this deliberately scaled-down version, the playwrights call for three actors to portray several characters. Directed by Catherine Bertrand, Salem Theatre Company’s production on opening night is a praiseworthy attempt, full of sound and fury, but the characters are thinly drawn. On the small, stark stage, Jonathan Moriarty’s lighting spotlights each character during key scenes, and appropriately darkens during bleak moments.
As theatergoers, a lone man sits silently, deep in troubled thought. With Alexander Castillo portraying main character Raskolnikov, we explore his reasons for committing double murder, traveling through his subconscious and conscience-wrestling. At times, Castillo is compelling, especially when he’s engaging in cat-and-mouse, “modern-day crime-solving” encounters with seemingly sympathetic detective, Porfiry Petrovitch, (Robert Cope).
As Raskolnikov devolves further into guilt-ridden hysteria, Castillo rants, rages, cries, battling his inner demons, then asks us onlookers whether we agree with his philosophy - specific people, like Napoleon Bonaparte and him, have the right to kill others to benefit the downtrodden and society.
As Porfiry, Cope is affable, believably interested in Raskolnikov’s legal theories (he read a paper the young man wrote in college). While solving his case, Porfiry seems earnestly trying to befriend Raskolnikov and save him from a tougher prison sentence. He calls Raskolnikov the “new face of crime,” while Raskolnikov counters with Porfiry’s new police tactics won’t work on him.
Then, too, Porfiry throws Raskolnikov a curve. The killer has confessed, he says,but he knows Raskolnikov is the real murderer who has committed the perfect crime. Porfiry gambles on whether Raskolnikov’s conscience will allow an innocent person to be convicted.
Cope also portrays unemployed drunkard, Marmeladov, whose Bible-reading daughter, Sonia, is forced into prostitution to support her family while he “drinks away her earnings”. Cope is cleverly cloying as Porfiry, but he’s bland as Marmeladov.
Through quick costume, posture and voice changes, Jade Mears morphs from Raskolnikov’s elderly, bent-over, skinflint, pawnbroker-moneylender-slum landlady, to Sonia.Donning a black hat and assuming a kindly demeanor, Mears transforms into Lizaveta, the landlady’s sister and Sonya’s friend, whom Raskolnikov also murders, because she witnessed his stabbing her sister to death. Donning a shawl, Mears changes again, as Raskolnikov’s loving, pathetic mother, who borrows money and gives him everything she has, before dying, heartbroken.
As their devotion to each other increases, emotional scenes require more intensity, more chemistry between the couple.
Raskolnikov gave Sonia the money his mother gave him, so she can pay for a proper funeral for her father and support her family. Raskolnikov also squirreled away some of his stolen booty under a rock, and begs Sonia to run away with him. When he confesses to her, Sonia convinces him to confess, repent. She promises not to abandon him.
Important subplots and key characters of Raskolnikov’s best friend, his sister Dounia, her former employer who is fixated on her, and her vapid, wealthy fiance,’ are ignored.
Then again, it’s nearly impossible to winnow this 19th century masterpiece into 90 minutes. Also, I attended “Crime and Punishment” on opening night, so by now, those first-night jitters and minor stage snafus are probably solved.
BOX INFO:One-act, 90-minute, three-person adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel, by Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus, appearing with Salem Theatre Company through Feb.14: Thursdays-Saturdays, at 7:30 p.m.; Sundays at 3 p.m. at 90 Lafayette St., Salem. Tickets, $10-$30; Feb. 5, LGBT night; discount tickets, post-show meet and greet. Visit salemtheatre.ticketleap.com/crime-punishment/.