Onstage: Review: Crime and Punishment

Dostoevsky's expansive novel is transformed into an intense psychological play

Sandy Underwood

Nick Cordileone (left) and John Campion face off in "Crime and Punishment" at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.

Fyodor Dostoevsky took 700 pages to tell the story of the tortured university student Raskolnikov who murders two women and then suffers the pangs of grief for a crime he thought he was entitled to commit. In an adaptation by Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus, currently onstage at the Cincinnati Playhouse, the essence of Crime and Punishment has been distilled to 85 powerful minutes. It's a startling feat of theatrics, all the more because the complex story is portrayed by three actors.

Nick Cordileone is Raskolnikov, and his anxiety and self-loathing is palpable. Cordileone is a slight man. His eyes can glitter with intelligence, but more often they squeeze tightly, as if he's feeling physical pain. His pursuer is Porfiry Petrovich, played by John Campion, a hearty police inspector who has no evidence but a profound suspicion. He finds his way inside Raskolnikov's false bravado and eventually pieces together the crime. Deborah Knox plays Sonia, Raskolnikov's impoverished neighbor who has been forced into prostitution: Despite her life, she is a woman of virtue. Raskolnikov confesses to her, and she shows him a path to redemption.

Cordileone is onstage throughout the performance.

Campion also plays Sonia´s recently deceased drunk of a father, while Knox also represents the women Raskolnikov has murdered — his silent, accusing mother and a tight-fisted pawnbroker and her innocent sister. Only slight changes of costume and hair distinguish one role from another, but they are enough to fully change the performer into another person. Campion's dissolute portrait of a self-vindicating alcoholic is especially effective.

But it's Cordileone who knits the story together. At first he is cocksure, confidently repeating parts of the story to the inspector with an aloof confidence, although we see, even in the play's early minutes, that his façade has cracks. But as Petrovich hammers away at the man with stringy, greasy hair and shabby clothes, he begins to crumble. Sonia's faith drives him to relieve his burden by telling her what he has done.

A minor cavil: The actors play their roles with flat American voices. The story is indelibly Russian (of course, it's universal, too), but without pressing them into Slavic accents, the story might have been enhanced with a touch more of the florid and dramatic. Campion comes closest as he plays the eccentric Petrovich, who guffaws and remonstrates even as we realize he's dead serious in his pursuit of the murderer.

Director Michael Evan Haney maintains a breathless pace for this production's narrative. It's almost dreamlike, as if we've entered Raskolnikov's fevered mind. Petrovich's interrogation slides from familiar banter to overpowering, echoing questions. The production's sound designer Fitz Patton has crafted a remarkable collection of skittering electronic string sounds, sonic reproductions of Raskolnikov's anxiety and fears that punctuate the emotional peaks that spin by from moment to moment.

Scenic and lighting designer Kevin Rigdon has used swirling lights and a simple turntable to move the actors across a surreal, minimally furnished acting space — just a chair, a small table and a stool. Behind the action, the backdrop is an immense Russian Orthodox icon, bejeweled and glowing: At the show's opening, its center opening is, of course, an image of Christ.

But as the action begins, that image slides into darkness. The empty portal (through which actors move on and off the stage) symbolizes the spiritual vacuum weighing on Raskolnikov. The icon reappears as the tale concludes and the murderer realizes the full weight of his actions.

"God grants peace to the dead," Raskolnikov repeats over and over, "but the living suffer." It's not a spoiler to reveal that Raskolnikov is the murderer: His nervous self-loathing is apparent from the outset, even if you're unacquainted with Dostoevsky's novel.

The thrilling dimension of this entertaining script is how the writers get inside his head, let us experience the off-balance workings of his mind and enable us to feel his horror as he realizes the magnitude of his crime.

Again and again, Raskolnikov is asked if he believes in the story of Lazarus, the dead man resurrected by Christ. He stumbles in answering each time. Then he's asked if he believes in God. As the play concludes, he asks plaintively, "Does it matter?" The answer, "It might," is the faint wisp of hope that tells us Raskolnikov — and others like him — might be redeemed.

Condensing the powerful story of Crime and Punishment into a riveting stage play is an impressive accomplishment, and the Cincinnati Playhouse's highly theatrical production plays every word and action for all it's worth.

Critic's Pick

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT is presented by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park through March 2. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.

Rick Pender

RICK PENDER has written about theater for CityBeat since its first issues in 1994. Before that he wrote for EveryBody’s News. From 1998 to 2006 he was CityBeat’s arts & entertainment editor. Retired from a long career in public relations, he’s still a local arts fan, providing readers (and public radio listeners)...
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