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Crime and Punishment
Writers' Theatre's production, now part of the Go! Chicago Festival at 59E59 Theaters, would be excellent if only for Marilyn Campbell and Cart Columbus's brilliant script, which distills Dostoyevsky's language into pure poetry. But the production is also blessed with director Michael Halberstam's extraordinary staging, which creates an electrifying visualization of the chaotic inner and outer worlds of Dostoyevsky's protagonist, Rodion Raskolnikov. Add in the high quality of the acting and this Crime and Punishment is a play not to be missed.
Scott Parkinson plays Raskolnikov with great sensitivity and a breathtaking dramatic range. Raskolnikov is an intellectual who has come up with the less than original theory claiming that certain people are so special they are not limited by the common law. Thus he becomes a murderer who can only be redeemed by God and love.
The play demands that Raskolnikov lurch between past and present, guilt and terror. Towards the end of the play Parkinson's Raskolnikov has a long monologue in which he tries to justify the murder to the audience and to himself. This calls for an extraordinary performance, and Parkinson is every bit the actor this play needs.
Susan Bennett plays all the female roles: Sonia, the compassionate and self-sacrificing prostitute; Alyona Ivanova, the old moneylender, and Lizaveta, her kindly sister, both Raskolnikov's victims; as well as Raskolnikov's indulgent mother. Some of her roles are in direct opposition to each other: the otherworldly Sonia and the money-hungry Alyona, for instance.
John Judd portrays all the male characters: Profiry the police inspector who believes in "free form" investigation because "You never know what's going to lead you to an answer"; Marmeladov, Sonia's drunken and pitiful father; the Tradesman, who appears as Raskolnikov's conscience; Koch, another client of Alyona.
Judd's primary role as Profiry is particularly nuanced. It embodies the good and bad cop in one personality, both of which appear unexpectedly like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. One minute he calls Raskolnikov "dear boy," the next he is asking the most leading questions.
Judd and Bennett merely throw on a hat or a coat to differentiate a new character, with the effect that they are always their primary characters, with Profiry and Sonia, playing the secondary characters. While in some plays such doubling and tripling up is clearly a money-saving device, in Crime and Punishment it serves to further demonstrate Raskolnikov's confused state. Fortunately, both actors are so skillful there is never any question of whom they are portraying and what his or her role is in the drama.
What is past? What is present? What is real? What is imagined? Scenic designer Eugene Lee's unpleasant, almost bare white stage, with its many doors leading offstage and dominated by the suspended figure of Christ on his cross, becomes a blank canvass for Raskolnikov's inner turmoil. At moments of greatest frenzy, Josh Schmidt's sound design conveys Raskolnikov's feverish state almost better than words. As doors open and shut, new characters appear. The lights go on and off and frightful sounds are produced by the flick of a giant circuit breaker.
This is fine drama. It is also pure Dostoyevsky. From its opening line, "Do you believe in Lazarus, rising from the dead?" to its life-affirming but inconclusive answer to that question, Crime and Punishment is riveting and not easily forgotten.
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