Distill 600 pages of Post-imperial Russian tragedy into 80 minutes of intense theater and you have the Center Stage production of Crime and Punishment. Paring down Dostoevsky's dense novel into a one-act play on a spare stage with just three actors is no small feat. The actors conduct a dance of scene and character changes using expertly timed fadeouts and cuts. One door opens and closes to transform place and time. It serves as the metaphorical center of Walt Spangler's simple yet dramatic set.
Within these narrow parameters, the audience must cross the threshold into the dark and dreamlike world of Raskolnikov, an impoverished student who is pawning his last few possessions to stay alive. Obsessed with nihilism, social justice and delusions of greatness, he conceives a plan to murder his pawnbroker.
Actor Eric Feldman opens the door and steps into the unhinged mind of Raskolnikov, taking his character on a harrowing journey from delirious poverty, to self-righteous philosopher, to failed master criminal. His performance is gripping as the super intellectual who finds he is just human after all. His struggle with his conscience serves as the focal point of the story. Feldman displays an ability to be both cerebral and emotional as we are drawn into the interior world of a man at war with himself.
At first, John Leonard Thompson's Porfiry seems too mild to be the menacing detective determined to hunt down the criminal. But Crime and Punishment is only a murder mystery on the surface. It reveals itself to be an investigation of a murderer's psyche and a treatise on guilt, retribution and redemption. In this context, Leonard's portrayal of persistent but restrained pursuit also serves as the voice of reason that cuts through Raskolnikov's delirium. Thompson gives Porfiry a cool demeanor with a modern tone which allows his character to offset the increasingly irrational Raskolnikov.
If Porfiry and Raskolnikov represent two sides of the human mind, Lauren Culpepper's Sonia is the heart. She affectingly portrays the vulnerability and strength of the prostitute who offers Raskolnikov forgiveness. Culpepper also takes on the challenge of multiple roles including that of the unforgiving pawnbroker.
The dreary scene takes a sudden turn when the murder is revealed in a phantasmagoric scene of harsh light and jarring music. The one miss is when Raskolnikov takes aim at his second victim and the weapon is obviously missing its object. Nonetheless, this event jerks the audience away from theoretical debate into the hard facts of the story.
For present-day patrons, who live in a world of rapid entertainment and text messages, the didactic nature of the play poses a problem. The challenge of presenting long discourses on philosophy and the nature of man while building tension is never quite achieved. The production is ambitious and the ideas are provoking, but ultimately it is the intricate interchange between the three players that holds the attention of the audience and makes them think long after they have left the theater.
Crime and Punishment runs now through May 15 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets are $15-$45. Call 410-332-0033 or go online to centerstage.org for more information.