Sunday, February 24, 2013

Discombobulated Dostoevsky at Trinity

This is just a quick post mortem on Trinity Rep's production of Crime and Punishment, which closed this weekend, and which must go down as one of the oddest misfires in that illustrious company's history.

I feel bad about kicking the show in the pants on the way out the door, but on the other hand I feel I have to note its passing somehow, and I didn't really have the heart to hack it down while it was running (it was the kind of production where you felt for the actors). 

I admit I walked into the theatre with some trepidation, because the very idea of adapting Dostoevsky's great psychological case study sounded like folly - but then I also have to admit that Trinity put its foot wrong just about every way possible. For some idea of the project's scrambled tone, check out the graphic at left - that was actually the poster for the show; yes, Dostoevsky's famously conscience-stricken killer, Raskolnikov, has apparently joined the Flying Brothers Karamazov - which gives you some idea of the incomprehensible car-crash that has held sway on Trinity's Dowling stage for the past few weeks. 

To begin with, as expected, the adaptation proved problematic.  Penned by Trinity artistic director Curt Columbus, it turned out to be only an hour-and-a-half long (length of novel: almost 500 densely printed pages!) - although I admit Columbus did pack in almost every plot point I remember from high school (he wisely begins after its pivotal double murder, which in one of the production's few effective moments, is re-enacted in flashback). Still, with a cast of only three actors, much telling detail is lost (even the crucial moral difference between Raskolnikov's two victims seems blurry) and given the speed with which events whip by, the script has an inevitable Cliff's-Notes vibe.

Add to that the fact that director Brian Mertes directed the whole thing as if it were occurring within Raskolnikov's head, during one of his episodes of delirium (admittedly, the script's pastiche would nudge any production in that direction), while set designer Eugene Lee came up with what appeared to be a Soho loft decorated for Cowboy Mouth (complete with keyboards, video cameras, a tech booth, lighting that descended to bonk the actors on the head, and of course a man-sized crucifix), and hoo boy, you've got one for the history books.

The actors were basically helpless within this surround, but even within those limits, Stephen Thorne, an expert comic actor who always looks a little panicky when pushed into a tragic role, slightly disappointed anyway.  (He should have fought for Raskolnikov's arc somehow, despite everything.)  Meanwhile television star (and former Trinity mainstay) Dan Butler - who played detective Porfiry as well as just about every other male role - seemed to take the whole thing as a lark, sometimes going shirtless for some reason, but more often simply trying to have a little sardonic fun wherever he could.  I have to report, however, that there was one reason to see this production - newcomer Rachel Christopher was the only member of the cast to tap into the torment of the novel, and her many cameos (particularly her turns as Sonya and Lizaveta) were just as harrowing as they should be. Hopefully, next time Trinity decides to do Dostoevsky, they'll simply cast Ms. Christopher in a one-woman show.

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