How do you adapt a 550+ page novel like Dostoevsky’s Crime And Punishment for the stage? If you’re playwriting team Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus, you pare it down to ninety minutes with a cast of three actors to play all the characters.  Well, not actually all of them. Of the two-dozen or so major roles in the Russian classic, Campbell and Columbus have chosen the nine they consider most important, given one actor the pivotal role of Raskolnikov the student/thief/murderer, and divvied up the remaining eight roles between the other two cast members.

Not having read Crime And Punishment in novel form, I can’t say how a Dostoevsky aficionado would feel about the resulting theatrical adaptation, but this theatergoer and lover of fine acting finds it at the very least an interesting piece of writing and, as might be expected, a great—and challenging—vehicle for its cast.

Following Actors Co-op’s equally fine intimate theater production of Crime And Punishment last year, A Noise Within now stages Campbell and Columbus’s adaptation in a considerably larger-theater/bigger-budget setting and the results are quite definitely worthy of a look-see.

The adaptors have conceived of Crime And Punishment as “a memory play set in the psychological landscape of Raskolnikov’s mind.”  This non-linear approach lets us experience Dostoevsky’s tale as if in a dream, with rapid, unexpected movements through time and place as frequent as they are in our own dreams.

It’s not necessary to have read Crime And Punishment to be able to follow Raskolnikov’s story here, but it might be worth five minutes of your time to read the two-page summary included in the program.  As for Campbell and Columbus’s editing down of Dostoevsky’s novel to about 5% its original length, the duo have somehow managed to keep major plot points intact. 

Frustrated by his precarious economic situation and feeling the need to move from passivity to action, a young student named Raskolnikov decides to commit murder.  We see him first as he is being questioned about the crime, and through flashbacks we gradually become aware that his initial denials are merely attempts to hide the truth—that he did indeed kill a pawnbroker named Alyona.  Since we’ve already seen just how Alyona takes advantage of her customers’ desperation by paying them the smallest sum possible for the objects they have come to pawn, it’s surprisingly easy to sympathize with Raskolnikov’s plan, even as we realize its moral wrongness. When police detective Porfiry interrogates Raskolnikov, we almost hope that he won’t be able to pin anything on our antihero.  On the other hand, Raskolnikov’s belief that certain “superior” human beings are above the law is troubling to say the least, for here is a man convinced of being just such an extraordinary being, another Napoleon Bonaparte, who can murder without repercussions. 

Besides Raskolnikov, Porfiry, and Alonya, other on-stage characters include Sonia, a woman who has chosen prostitution as a way to support her destitute family; Marmeladov, Sonya’s alcoholic father; Lizaveta, Alonya’s (considerably nicer) sister, who has the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time; and Raskolnikov’s mother.

The role of Raskolnikov is being played at A Noise Within by the outstanding young actor Michael A. Newcomer, whose starring roles in The Heiress and The Manchurian Candidate have already been raved about on this website.  As Dostoevsky’s tortured hero, a virtually unrecognizable Newcomer disappears into the role, his face hidden behind a full, scruffy beard, his eyes reflecting Raskolnikov’s anger, torment, and frustration. What was the weak link in the Actors Co-op production is here Crime And Punishments greatest asset.  Newcomer makes you believe that he is from another century all the while never letting his performance become stilted by the script’s literary style. 

As the various assorted male characters, A Noise Within Resident Artist Robertson Dean has found precisely the kinds of roles for which his rather theatrical style of acting is a perfect fit, with both the relentless Porfiry and the drunken Marmeladov being standouts.  (At the Co-op, Paul Witten also played Alyona, and it would have been interesting to see what Dean would have done with this role, though perhaps his beard might have made the gender switch a tougher sell.) Holly Hawkins does excellent work as the older female characters, but is harder to accept as Sonia the prostitute, a case of a fine actress cast perhaps a bit too much against type here. 

Because of the many time and space changes, an imaginative director is de rigueur for this particular piece, and director Craig Belknap gets high marks for his inventive staging. Equally important is the work of the design team, without whom Campbell and Columbus’s twists and turns through time and space could prove overly confusing.  A Noise Within never fails to assemble the finest design talent in town, and Crime And Punishment is no exception—James P. Taylor’s lighting, Bill Frogatt’s sound, and Michael C. Smith’s set coming together in quite dazzling fashion.  At times bathing the set in a warm but realistic glow, at others starkly lighting a single character amidst a sea of darkness, and once even turning up the houselights so that Raskolnikov can come into the aisles to address the audience, ANW Resident Artist Taylor’s lighting is some of his best work yet.  Frogatt’s sound design underscores Dostoevsky’s internal and external dramas with appropriately mood-setting music. ANW Resident Artist Smith’s set is a fascinating crisscrossing of staircases leading who knows where. Completing the design team is Christina Haatainen-Jones, who has created era, social status, and character appropriate garb for the various characters.

Crime And Punishment Campbell and Columbus-style is a play distinguished by its ingenuity and the acting opportunities it offers its cast. It can get pretty talky at times, but there are some great soliloquies (Raskolnikov’s dream of a cruel, brutal horse beating is one of the most powerful), and ample food for post-performance discussion by philosophically minded audience members. 

Crime And Punishment is one-third of A Noise Within’s fall season, which also includes Richard III and Noises Off. A Shakespearean tragedy, a 1980s farce, and a contemporary adaptation of a 19th Century literary classic add up to something for everyonethis fall at A Noise Within.

A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd. , Glendale .

–Steven Stanley
October 28, 2009
                                                                             Photos: Craig Schwartz

Comments are closed.