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A Lean and Meaningful 'Crime and Punishment'

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 12, 2007

Those gloomy Russians -- how exuberantly they suffer! Life's injustice, man's conflicting insights . . . and where is God?

So much to discuss, and with passion, as a frustrated intellectual hurtles himself toward murder in "Crime and Punishment," the sprawling Dostoevski novel reduced to a tight 90 minutes at the Round House Theatre.

The spare adaptation by Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus cuts away characters and incidents, calling for just three actors as it ruthlessly narrows its focus. Director Blake Robison's elegant production further puts on the squeeze: Robin Stapley's intimate set is dominated by a small, circular stage and a tilted arc above. It's handsome but vaguely ominous, almost viselike; it looks as if it's about to snap shut.

Even the lights pinch. During the opening, Kenton Yeager's design shrinks to roughly one square yard of illumination on Aubrey Deeker, the reedy, oboe-voiced actor who plays the tormented murderer Raskolnikov. And if the goal is to sustain such a sense of pressure as the characters contemplate annihilation and redemption, this production certainly succeeds.

Yet it's the acting that carries it, starting with Deeker's arrestingly morbid turn. He excels at projecting a quirky curiosity, which here is pitched toward the existential abyss as Raskolnikov gripes about the world's wrongs and waxes on with his theory of the extraordinary man -- the same screwy brand of superiority that Leopold and Loeb toyed with en route to a similarly twisted braining of an innocent.

Raskolnikov's restless conscience and rabid rationalizations swerve him through agonies and ecstasies that seem to come easily to Deeker. It's a talky, moody show, but Deeker's so fascinating and sympathetic -- so alive in Raskolnikov's mental cesspool -- that the piece is never in danger of feeling remote.

The same sort of thing is true of Mitchell Hebert's wily portrayal of Porfiry, the inspector on the case. Hebert plays the compassionate Porfiry less like the methodical jaws of justice than like a fly fisherman, gingerly casting ideas into the air to see what makes Deeker's exotic Raskolnikov jump.

Tonya Beckman Ross provides more direct emotional notes as Sonia, the good-hearted prostitute who takes as much of an interest in Raskolnikov as he does in her. When Ross or Hebert briefly takes on other roles -- she as the doomed pawnbroker, he as Sonia's drunken father -- it's done in plain sight and with a simple bit of costuming (a shawl, a hat).

A circle turns out to be the perfect symbolic shape for this adaptation, which Campbell and Columbus structure on a few key refrains. "God grants peace to the dead," Raskolnikov says with varying degrees of conviction. More pointed is the resurrection theme that comes around with choral regularity; when Sonia reads the biblical tale of Lazarus to Raskolnikov, the scene is handled with particular care.

It's a lean, effective take, much more like the two-actor "Turn of the Screw" that Round House did a number of years ago than the epic staging of John Irving's "A Prayer for Owen Meany" that opened the current season.

One character refers to the case as "a modern murder -- a murder with a psychological explanation," and Robison has figured out how to keep this distilled Dostoevski taut. Ideas are seized and actions unfold quick as dreams -- a fast bashing, a vivid bit with a bowl of blood -- as the acting ripples with cruelty and hope.

Crime and Punishment, adapted by Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus from the Feodor Dostoevski novel. Directed by Blake Robison. Music by the Bergonzi String Quartet. Costumes, Bill Black; sound design, Matthew M. Nielson. About 90 minutes. Through April 29 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East West Hwy., Bethesda. Call 240-644-1100 or visit http://www.roundhousetheatre.org.

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