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Crime and Punishment

Dostoevsky Distilled

Three actors, two chairs, a table, and a bed: this is what Berkeley Rep’s production of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment has reduced the story to, yet the ultimate power of the novel remains, concentrated into these carefully chosen fragments. To take on the challenge of adapting Dostoevsky’s enormously complex and voluminous novel into a stage play takes incredible will, and not only do playwrights Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus turn the story into a captivating psychological journey but they also successfully distill the main themes of Dostoevsky’s work into a 90-minute production that still manages to affect the viewer as deeply as the novel.

The scarred table and rickety chairs, the cheap, narrow bed, stand as silent witnesses to the action, emphasizing the emptiness of the stage rather than filling it. Two walls of worn, gray doors three levels high meet in a corner at the back of the stage, acting as entrance points for the actors, but also giving the audience a sense of stepping into the mind of the main character, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, and lending a nightmarish quality to the proceedings.

And this is really what the story is about: the internal psychological struggle of Raskolnikov as he contemplates, then commits, a terrible double murder, and his ultimate inability to come to terms with what he has done, despite the carefully built justification he gives for his actions. While the 700-page novel moves along chronologically, taking the reader carefully through the planning, the act itself, and then Raskolnikov’s internal battle, the play works non-chronologically, beginning with Detective Porfiry Petrovich’s questioning of Raskolnikov, and periodically flashing back to critical scenes from the story, such as Raskolnikov’s various interlocutions with Sonia (a religious prostitute who ultimately represents Raskolnikov’s salvation); his meetings with the parsimonious pawnbroker, Alyona Ivanovna (the old woman who is the target of Raskolnikov’s murderous plan); and even the murder itself, which is brilliantly executed in a captivating display reminiscent of amusement park haunted house rides.

With the various subplots of the novel stripped away, the important actions of the story are revealed and brought into context, drawn together by Porfiry’s probing of Raskolnikov’s mind and motivations, ultimately revealing a fascinating consideration of the act of murder and the possibility for salvation. “Do you believe in Lazarus rising from the dead?” The question recurs throughout the play, a relentless assault on the strength (or perhaps more appropriately the existence) of Raskolnikov’s faith, yet which also seems to present the only possibility for his redemption. If Lazarus can be brought back from the dead, then perhaps there is a way, even if only figuratively, that the deaths of Alyona Ivanovna and her sister can also be undone.
Ultimately, Raskolnikov is internally compelled to confess, as this is his only hope for deliverance from the unabated attacks of conscience in his increasingly fevered mind.

Sharon Ott directs the play beautifully, using the spare set to focus the audience’s attention on the psychological intensity of the action. The three actors, Tyler Pierce (Raskolnikov), J.R. Horne (Porfiry and others), and Delia MacDougall (Sonia and others), work well together to create the complicated web of motivations and actions that form the underpinnings of the story. In addition, J.R. Horne and Delia MacDougall are able to change roles seamlessly, portraying convincing depictions of Marmeladov and Porfiry (Horne) and of Sonia, Alyona, Lizaveta (Alyona’s sister and the second murder victim), and Raskolnikov’s mother (MacDougall). This economy of plot, actors, characters, and set in the play allow the fundamental question of the story to blossom forth: can cold reason overcome the stabbing pains of conscience?

Be warned, though: although the play is very well-written and flawlessly performed, it is not a traditional play of action. It traces the metamorphosis of a man’s mind, of his psychological disposition after the commission of a horrible crime, rather than focusing on the specific actions that bring him to that point. As a result, many fascinating themes and dramatic realizations become manifest, but not a whole lot actually happens in the conventional sense.

Crime and Punishment is a complex novel, and all of its elements contribute to the development of Dostoevsky’s story. However, Berkeley Rep’s production of the stage adaptation, in stripping away most of the original narrative, has revealed the heart of the work, and ultimately challenges our faith in the power of reason to justify what are essentially monstrous acts.

At Berkeley Repertory Theater
Now - March 29th
Tickets: $27-$71