Chicago Theatre Review
The Psychology of Murder
Crime & Punishment
Sometimes one slaves over plans for an event, rationalizes it to death and even envisions its aftermath. Such is this story of intellectual torment and ethical quandary haunting impoverished Russian student Rodion Raskolnikov as he plots to rob and kill a mercenary pawnbroker. Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus have nicely captured the main characters, basic plot and dark tone of Dostoyevsky’s lengthy, 1866 psychological masterpiece while successfully paring it down into a 90-minute theatrical event. Originally written and presented in 2003, the remount marks the 28th season opening of this Jeff Award-winning company.
The play’s young protagonist suffers both from poverty and a dual personality. While residing in his tiny, austere room under the boarding house stairs, Raskolnikov devises a plan to murder the noxious pawnbroker Alonya, both to rid the world of such a despicable creature while putting her money to better use. He also theorizes that there are two kinds of people in this world: the mere ordinary and those who are extraordinary, the Supermen, like Napoleon, who not only have the right but the obligation to kill and relieve the world of its vermin. Throughout the play, Raskolnikov continually reaffirms his belief that, as an extraordinary individual, his heinous crime is justified; however, he’s haunted by ghosts, visions, bad dreams and illness as a result of his deed.
Raskolnikov is perfectly portrayed by Ed Porter, who might’ve been exactly what Dostoyevsky pictured while creating his antihero. Porter not only matches the author’s description of his character (“handsome, above average in height, slim, with dark eyes and dark brown hair”), he also plays Raskolnikov’s dual personality beautifully. At times cold, menacing and antisocial, Porter brings other moments of warmth and caring to his characterization. This duality is best shown in his scenes with Sonia, the prostitute he tries to help but who ends up helping him toward confession of his crime, thus relieving Raskolnikov of his guilt. Porter’s twitchy uneasiness, which he controls to varying degrees throughout the story, is continually well-acted.
Jack McCabe plays Porfiry, the detective in charge of the case. Less successful than Porter, McCabe’s portrayal of a government official who enjoys using mind games to extract confession when sound evidence is lacking provides a nice contrast. But his character lacks bite and is far too relaxed and non-threatening throughout the play. It’s difficult to understand why Raskolnikov would’ve been intimidated by his presence. McCabe’s Marmeladov, Sonia’s hopelessly drunk father, is stronger but sometimes borders on caricature.
Making her debut with this company is Maureen Yasko playing every female role. Up to the challenge, Ms. Yasko has to change from Sonia, the hooker with a heart of gold, to the repulsive pawnbroker Alonya, to her sister Lizaveta and even to Raskolnikov’s mother. It’s an interesting tour de force for this actress who does well in each role; but casting a second actress to play a couple of these parts would’ve eased some of the pressure from Ms. Yasko, who seems to spend most of the play simply entering and exiting after changing costumes.
In a production that focuses mostly on the punishment rather than the crime, director Richard Cotovsky has nicely kept his actors in check. Primarily with his leading man, Cotovsky continually drives his cast toward the finish line. He’s maintained Porter’s restrained fixation and his dual personality, while allowing Ms. Yasko the necessary range to create her cast of characters. John Holt’s sparse, almost expressionistic scenic design works well in the tiny Angel Island space and is enriched by Claire Sangster’s modest lighting. If, however, audiences aren’t accustomed to the frigid temperatures of a Russian winter, a word of warning: dress in layers for this production.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 4-March 16 by Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company at Angel Island, 731 W. Sheridan Rd., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-871-0442 or by visiting their website at www.maryarrchie.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.