Dostoyevsky and the cancer of intellect

Intiman's strong adaptation of 'Crime and Punishment' moves a big novel to a lean production
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Galen Joseph Osier and Hana Lass, in Intiman's 'Crime and Punishment'

Intiman's strong adaptation of 'Crime and Punishment' moves a big novel to a lean production

It'ꀙs a new season at Intiman. Go. Give them money. Tell your friends to go. Argue about the productions they stage. If somebody criticizes a show there, don'ꀙt use that excuse to lie around and watch "Mad Men." We are fortunate in Seattle to have a wealth of talented theater artists and arts managers working hard to give us the good stuff. In these times of trouble each of us must provide our own stimulus package to the forces that make our city a good place to live, and Intiman is part of that equation.

As this year'ꀙs first offering, the theater has remounted a lean, locally-originated adaptation of Dostoyevsky'ꀙs Crime and Punishment previously staged in the dungeon at the Capitol Hill Arts Center. Sheila Daniels, who staged the piece at CHAC and now serves as Intiman'ꀙs Associate Artistic Director, has brought two of her original cast members to this restaging. When the professional houses do this — draw on local work — they offer vital proof to the legion of artists laboring in the non- and semi-professional companies that their work is noticed, and may on its merits attract more resources and a broader audience. Opening a season with this show signals the Intiman'ꀙs confidence in it. Rare in Seattle, this kind of mainstage transfer should happen more: Well done.

Crime and Punishment, a raw beefsteak of a novel first published in 1866, wonderfully marbles Gothic Romanticism with Modern angst. In his previous work, the novella Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky had created an 'ꀜuntermensch'ꀝ and begun to explore its clumsy cruelties and social alienation; here he roots deeper into the same cancer of intellect, transferring it into a younger, emptier head in which its growth leads to dire consequences. Underground'ꀙs pitiful and ludicrous revenge plot involves bumping into one'ꀙs enemy while passing him in the street, which he fails to notice; here an axe is bloodied. Happily, the whore with a soul of gold reappears to alleviate the reader'ꀙs pain, relaying the author'ꀙs torch of mystical Christian Orthodoxy.

This recent adaptation of Crime and Punishment was created by playwright Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus, artistic director of Trinity Rep. The script is clear and robust. The book has been distilled to three principal and four minor characters, played by just three actors in a brisk hour and a half without intermission. We are given the core psychological drama of Raskolnikov'ꀙs fever, pride, and guilt, with unities of time and place suspended to good dramatic effect through the use of sudden flashbacks and interior monologues. Suspense and swift action are maintained in spite of the novel'ꀙs psychological thickets: Will the murderer abscond with the prostitute? Will the Inspector catch him out? What will his mother say?

This is a fine work to adapt for the theatre. In Raskolnikov we see the familiar dramatic figure of the young nihilist — Euripides'ꀙ Orestes, Edmund in Lear — evolve into a proto-fascist intellectual. Raskolnikov idolates Napoleon, Russia'ꀙs great despoiler, as above morality. Dostoyevsky'ꀙs fiction put us on notice about this dangerous type, and the warning was repeated throughout the following century in memorable plays like Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs. Shame on us that we still have not taken it to heart.

Hamlet, something of a cousin to Raskolnikov, has a valid claim for vengeance and finds at last the stomach to reject Ophelia and do the deed. We pity and admire his teeming brain and thwarted ambition. Raskolnikov has the strength of will without the justification; that is his tragedy. He recognizes his own talent but lacks the cash, charisma, or connections to deploy it for self-advancement; his outlet is murder. Like Raskolnikov, Chekhov'ꀙs Treplev in The Seagull also hungers for 'ꀜnew forms'ꀝ and obsesses over a woman who is both fallen and innocent. But Treplev has neither righteousness nor strength to drive him, so his misery turns inward; he kills himself.

Alas, Galen Joseph Osier as the Intiman'ꀙs Raskolnikov seems more apt to suicide than murder. This is a punishing role: loping non-stop across the stage, leaping forward and back in time from desperation before the act to belated compunction; cunning and prideful with the Inspector, yearning and impassioned with Sonia. Osier commits himself to it fully and his technical delivery — unnecessary accent notwithstanding — does not falter. But at heart he seems a gentler fellow than his character, likelier to axe a bit of firewood than a fellow soul: better cast as Prince Myshkin, the protagonist of Dostoyevsky'ꀙs later novel The Idiot.

Nor does Sonia, played with similar commitment by Hana Lass, wear the brassy weariness of a prostitute. Her role, too, demands an immensely complex and subtle set of contradictory passions, saint and sinner; I believe her saint but not her sinner. Osier, when called upon to ask the audience a question, does not quite dare to wait for the answer. I found myself longing to replace them with a couple of half-mad, half-drunk, post-Soviet stage vagrants from Novosibirsk who hadn'ꀙt eaten for a week.

The third principal, Inspector Porfiry, is a Freudian figure: as much analyst as detective. Todd Jefferson Moore'ꀙs pointed beard and tailcoat, his expressive hands and coaxing, seductive approach to extracting a confession cast him as a Sherlock Holmes of the id. 'ꀜMy dear boy,'ꀝ he calls Raskolnikov, and tells him, 'ꀜI see you as a man of noble character.'ꀝ Moore is at times opaque — does he believe these things or is he just angling for a confession? — and a touch tentative with text and doors on opening night; also more spry than seems possible for this hemorrhoid-plagued character. But these are quibbles. Moore'ꀙs reliably animated presence is always a pleasure to watch; his striking figure and sardonic wit cuts cleanly across the rantings of Raskolnikov. This stock Russian character later fades into middle-aged self-loathing as Chekhov'ꀙs underachieving country doctors, but here he still has the goods.

Sheila Daniels'ꀙ production is mindful of the cultural eddies that enwrap the novel. Raskolnikov in his room beneath the stairs reminds us of Kafka'ꀙs cockroach when he says 'ꀜI sat in my room like a spider'ꀦI am an insect like all the rest.'ꀝ We hear heartbeats à la Poe. The walls, transformed from drab plaster, suddenly effuse a golden light as the anti-hero plunges into his own thoughts: the 'ꀜaura'ꀝ of epilepsy (a condition shared by Dostoevsky and some of his characters) but also an echo of the beautiful Symbolist images from the recent Le Page production of Erwartung at the Seattle Opera.

Indeed the physical production is consistently strong: the crime scene displays a nice bit of stagecraft, and fragments of life (a piece of mirror behind the door, a red scarf) stand out on the austere angled set. I hope that rage and redemption, callousness and culpability also come into higher relief as the actors settle into their roles on this larger stage.

Later in the season Sheila Daniels will direct again, mounting Robert Sherwood'ꀙs Abe Lincoln in Illinois. I look forward to seeing how well she casts the play and what she pulls out of her actors as she moves from the rabid intellectual anti-hero to the iconic political colossus.


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