Theater Review: Trinity Rep’s Crime and Punishment

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


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Dan Butler returns to the Trinity stage in a riveting performance as Porfiry in a new production of Crime and Punishment. Photo: Mark Turek.

Theater is thrilling when it’s psychological. It’s spectacular when it reveals the psyche itself.

This is the achievement of Trinity Rep’s production of Crime and Punishment--a fascinating, taut 90-minute evocation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s famed novel of the same name.

The novel takes the reader on a nearly-500-page journey with Raskolnikov, a desperately poor student in czarist St. Petersburg who commits murder in a fevered state of speculation about whether a man can do such a thing justifiably. Dostoevsky’s simultaneously vaulting and petit-point-detailed serial follows Raskolnikov as he plots, kills, and struggles against and ultimately toward confession while falling in love with Sonia, a young prostitute, and being pursued by Porfiry, a detective who applies a then-revolutionary notion of psychology to the criminal act.

Inside the mind

The play, adapted by Trinity’s artistic director Curt Columbus and playwright Marilyn Campbell, has not only distilled those hundreds of pages of experience and thought, but set them as synaptic flashes in the logically acute and yet emotionally despairing confines of Raskolnikov’s mind itself. Everything in the production supports this. The play’s structure is more associative than linear, and its dialogue a stylistically pure set of exchanges and speeches whose directness and clarity seem more universal than tied to specific time or place. The novel’s 19 characters are reduced to a handful in the play and embodied on stage by three actors--Raskolnikov (Stephen Thorne), Sonia and several other female characters (Rachel Christopher), and the detective Porfiry and Sonia’s father, Marmeladov (Dan Butler).

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Spattered in ash-dark blood of his crimes, Stephen Thorne as Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov embodies the torment of the moment, with Rachel Christopher in background. Photo: Mark Turek.

These are the gifts of the adaptors. In the hands of Trinity’s resident designer Eugene Lee, lighting designer Dan Scully, and sound design from Broken Chord, this production creates the visual, aural, and even olfactory experience of the mind. And it’s a brilliant achievement. Lee’s set is chaotic with piles of books, worn furniture, and industrial equipment. Lights perch, hang and hover everywhere--as do video cameras. A dimly lit anteroom hides behind a patchwork of old windows at the set's center, and on those windowpanes play the projected images--often distorted--from the cameras spying on the action. Similar projections flicker from a stack of aged, bulky televisions.

Thorne is perfect

It’s a shifting, fractured place, one that gives shape and dimension to Raskolnikov's sharded mind. Stephen Thorne is perfect as Dostoevsky's protagnonist. His slight frame and affable features suit the characterization, making Raskolnikov attractive enough to keep our sympathies when he argues for the Napoleonic right to kill for the greater good. Thorne gets better every year he’s on stage at Trinity, and under the direction of Brian Mertes, there’s terrific specificity and command. Thorne expresses the sufferings of the self-damned murderer, as well as his intellectual arrogance and deep gentleness. That Dostoevsky could create such a character on the page testifies to his genius; that Thorne's Raskolnikov is as complex and compelling is proof of his.

Butler: Astonishing life and nuance

And yet this is not the only great performance of Crime and Punishment. Dan Butler, who returns to the Providence stage after early years at Trinity Rep, brings astonishing life and nuance to both the central characters he portrays. Butler, who gives us a Porfiroy who is at moments a bustling bureaucrat and at others a small, quiet voice of human conscience, as well as Marmeladov's leering, stuttered ruin, is a remarkable complement to Thorne. These two actors have great chemistry--one can only imagine the depths they will reach as the run progresses.

Rachel Christopher turns in many interesting and resonant moments in her portrayals of the usurious pawnbroker who is Raskolnikov’s original victim, and her well-meaning sister who is the second one. Her work as Sonia is less expansive--and the rigors of several late scenes where she begs Raskolnikov to turn himself in don’t quite gel in the way that the rest of the production’s scenes do.

But these are slights in an overall production that reveals the mind of a man tormented by the inescapable judgment of his God, the maw of poverty and anonymity, the relentless drive of his intellect, and the guilt of his crime. Eugene Lee’s boldest touch on the stage, a larger than life crucified Christ, hangs above the actors. So too, do we bear witness to the tortures and redemption in Raskolnikov's all-too-human soul.

Crime and Punishment, through February 24, at Trinity Rep, 201 Washington St, Providence.


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