- Guilt cage: Larry John Meyers and Joel Ripka in PICT's Crime & Punishment. Photo courtesy of Gianni Downs.
Sure, everybody wants to read Crime & Punishment. We would all love to brush up on Russian literature, so we can talk at length about the beautiful sadness at the heart of Dostoyevsky's masterpiece. What cocktail party would be complete without a hearty debate about Slavic existentialism?
But there are some problems: The Penguin Classics edition costs $14 new. Russian translated into English always sounds wonky. And Crime & Punishment spans 718 pages. If you read as slowly as I do, that would take 36 hours.
This is why it's essential, for almost any cultured Pittsburgher, to see Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus' adaptation of Crime & Punishment, directed by Matthew Gray, at Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre.
Columbus and Campbell have taken those 718 pages and squeezed hard, wringing out the juiciest essence of Dostoyevsky's 1866 novel. This show features only three actors and lasts only 90 minutes; the set consists of a desk, a chair, a free-standing door and a stage covered in sawdust. Instead of curtains or a proper backdrop, there are strips of transparent plastic.
And yet, using these sparse tools, Crime & Punishment takes us on a breakneck journey through the human soul. The play is rigged with psychological booby-traps; several times last Sunday, a riveted audience actually, literally, gasped.
The plot is simple: Raskolnikov wanted to be a lawyer, but he dropped out of school. He doesn't work and he survives on a shoestring, but Raskolnikov is an egomaniac who fancies himself an intellectual colossus. To prove his moral superiority, the starving Raskolnikov makes a rash choice -- to murder a despised old woman who runs a local pawnshop. Why can he do this? Because he's better than everybody else.
What's remarkable about Crime & Punishment is that Raskolnikov is so human. We embrace him, though we watch him slaughter his neighbor with a hatchet. Meanwhile, we grow enamored of Porfiry Petrovich, the affable police inspector attempting to solve the murder. As created by Larry John Meyers, Petrovich is a unique blend of father and confidante, a man who seeks to entrap the criminal he admires. The relationship between these two men is one of the most complex in literature, and had PICT hired an actor less equipped to play Raskolnikov than Joel Ripka, the show would likely collapse.
Dostoyevsky is often applauded for his complicated female characters -- especially for a "Victorian" writer. Susan Goodwillie plays a variety of women -- old, young, bubbly and grimly pious -- and her transitions are flawless. This is a special trio, and humble as this production is, live theater doesn't get much better.
Crime & Punishment continues through Oct. 3. Henry Heymann Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial, Forbes Avenue at Bigelow, Oakland. 412-394-3353 or www.picttheatre.org.