In an interview with Spencer Abbott, Peter Greenaway was asked about the history of the cinema. He remarked, “We haven’t seen the cinema yet, all we’ve seen is 100 years of illustrated text.” Mr. Greenaway was referring to the commercial cinema and its insistence on the screenplay as holy writ. But his comment applies just as well to the Seattle stage. We haven’t seen much theater, just illustrated text.
But the problem is not merely that so much of what’s on stage is illustrated text, it’s that neither the text nor the illustration is particularly interesting. The illustration tends toward dismal attempts at recreating the forced perspective and montage of television, with short exchanges and frequent changes of place or time. The text of course remains pure bourgeois melodrama — only if you’re in Seattle, the melodrama is stripped of all but the most reified emotions because someone might get uncomfortable at having to feel something, you know. It’s a lethal combination and a sure-fire recipe for Deadly Theater.
One way out of this is to choose at the very least a more interesting text. Then, rather than merely illustrate it, distill it to its essence. Embody those qualities that make it both distinct and universal. And then, rather than penetrate the text and go for the simplest “meaning” possible, permeate the text so that “meaning” retains its complexity.
That is, in a nutshell, the modus operandi of the Akropolis Performance Lab. They’ve done this before to a number of “classic” texts over the years, including Dostoevsky’s “Dream of a Ridiculous Man.” Over the past four years, after a long artistic hiatus, they’ve started to take on not just “classics” like Seneca’s Oedipus but “masterpieces” like Uncle Vanya, Faust and now Crime+Punishment.
Mark Twain once quipped that a classic is a book which people praise and don’t read. He didn’t offer a definition of a masterpiece, so with some liberty I will offer one on his behalf: A masterpiece is a book which people think they understand without ever reading. Which leads me to Dostoevsky’s masterpiece.
The problem with Crime and Punishment for the contemporary audience is that it’s all too familiar. Ten thousand bad movies and television dramas have merged armchair psychoanalysis with the mechanical whodunnit since then, luring audiences everywhere into thinking that they can peer into the mind of serial killers and matricides with complete understanding. Furthermore literary scholarship has reached such levels of po-mo absurdity that I’ve heard scholars proclaim with a straight-faced seriousness that all of Dostoevsky’s novels are in fact merely mystery novels in the vein of Agatha Christie. That Agatha Christie was born twenty-four years after the publication of Crime and Punishment is probably immaterial.
Yet the book isn’t familiar at all. Even the most important intellectual ideas in the book have taken on meanings no reader of Dostoevsky would have understood the same way. “Progressive.” “Nihilism.” “Environment.” “Socialism.” “Living soul.” They’re all words that we oh-so-post-modern folks think we understand but rarely actually consider — perfect grist for a masterpiece. Any production of Crime and Punishment therefore has to dissolve a century and a half of patina made of half-baked, quarter-digested notions that have accrued to the tale before it can get down to business. This should be easy because Crime and Punishment has many ways into it, but it takes courage to make the first step.
Akropolis have chosen to enter through the world of dreams: the very first scene in fact shows Raskolnikov dreaming of Mikolka beating and killing his horse. In the novel this doesn’t happen until Chapter 5, but by choosing to enter the work here, director Joseph Lavy and his company indicate quite clearly that this is the story of a nightmare. My own reading of the production is that it is a nightmare of a world in which anything can be justified objectively.
The standard trope of this so-called objectivity is that one must be “rational” and refuse to accept individual emotion. In fact what happens in this mode of discourse is that reason is used to justify an unspoken emotion. I really deep down hate this person illogically so I’m going to offer “reasons” why they are bad. One could point out a thousand examples of such behavior in even the most supposedly reasonable human beings. In Crime + Punishment this discourse takes the same form in the opposite direction. Raskolnikov’s rationalization offers an example of emotion justifying reason. His theory of the extraordinary man makes so much sense to him that he has to find some way to feel in his heart that it is necessary to act upon it in order not to be a mere pleb. That struggle is the heart of the drama, even after the actual murders have occurred.
The Akropolis version submerges the audience right into this emotion, the hallucinations and nightmares that suggest, as Heidegger put it, the Dreadful has already happened. It’s a theme they’ve explored recently in The Glas Nocturne as well. Both pieces deal with the idea of “justifiable” murder. But a subtle distinction exists. In Doktor Glas, the protagonist murders a man who is in fact a beast, an oppressive pocket dictator who exists only to destroy the lives of others. In Crime and Punishment, the protagonist murders two women who have done absolutely nothing wrong because he wants money. His exchange with Nastasia in the novel reveals everything:
“They pay so little for lessons. What’s the use of a few coppers?” he answered, reluctantly, as though replying to his own thought.
“And you want to get a fortune all at once?”
He looked at her strangely.
“Yes, I want a fortune,” he answered firmly after a brief pause.
“Don’t be in such a hurry, you quite frighten me! Shall I get you the loaf or not?”
In short, the difference in action/intent is that Glas acts for others while Raskolnikov acts for himself. It’s probably no surprise that one is a doctor who lives in the practical world of action while the other is a student who lives largely inside his head.
The genius of this production is that it evokes the feeling of being inside Raskolnikov’s head the entire time while appearing nominally realistic. The set by Kix is spare but hardly minimal; details are chosen for a reason. Multiples of three are everywhere: three windows, three candles, three doorways — each of them reflecting the three acts of the play. On the double doors that serve as Sonya Marmeladova’s apartment as well as Svidrigailov’s are the numbers 7 and 30, which could not possibly be neighboring numbers, except that together — 730 — they mark the number of steps from the gate of Raskolnikov’s lodging house to the site of the murder. The acting seems straightforward enough but then suddenly an actor will evoke an animal form or physical hieroglyph that’s almost straight out of German expressionism or Meyerhold. Dramatic scenes reach a height past which it seems impossible to go and then suddenly offstage actors will come onto the stage as voices, form a chorus and begin singing Russian folk songs to the tune of a hurdy-gurdy. All these things serve to remind the audience that this world only seems rational. Emotions seem restrained yet they are unleashed. Intellectual arguments seem to make sense, yet they are, in a word, nuts.
The service this provides is that it makes Dostoevsky’s novel strange again. Instead of an old chestnut or a bookshelf decoration, Crime+Punishment becomes a work of art with which one can argue, struggle, sink, swim, but most of all engage the moral imagination. At the same time, it reveals why Dostoevsky’s novel is a classic, because it expertly points to the moral dilemmas that might have their roots in Dostoevsky’s time but have bloomed like the flowers of evil in our own. For instance Luzhin argues in the novel:
Economic truth adds that the better private affairs are organised in society—the more whole coats, so to say—the firmer are its foundations and the better is the common welfare organised too. Therefore, in acquiring wealth solely and exclusively for myself, I am acquiring, so to speak, for all.
Every thinking human being has heard this tommyrot before. It’s a trope that runs throughout all of human time. It has a thousand names: enlightened self-interest, the invisible hand, the tragedy of the commons, the selfish gene. It is the essence of neoliberal politics not only in America but throughout the world wherever America has laid its grubby paws. But of course the rub is that prizing selfishness above all isn’t enough. As Porify Petrovich remarks “Oh, come, don’t we all think ourselves Napoleons now in Russia?” And as the detective rejoins, “Perhaps it was one of these future Napoleons who did in Alyona Ivanovna last week?” It is: Raskolnikov certainly views himself as a future Napoleon, an extraordinary man who dares utter the new word. Yet as clearly off his rocker as Raskolnikov may be, he acts out his fantasies in a world in which petty bourgoisie like Luzhin and Svidrigailov are considered normal. So who is truly crazy? That question surely resounds in the minds of every thinking American these days as they have to read yet another tweet or watch another TV pasquinade with their supposedly elected representatives.
In going for the personal, the Akropolis production removes a certain amount of this intellectual background and concentrate it in the character of Svidrigailov who, like a Greek chorus, functions as a symbol of the so-called normal world of the bourgeoisie. Rather than making the play less complex, however, it actually increases the complexity. Between Svidrigailov and Raskolnikov there is no high moral ground. Both see the flaws in the other. Both are violent and ridiculous in equal measure. One is definitely a murderer and the other probably is. Choosing one to believe and the other to discount is impossible, since both hold pieces of the truth in equal measure. For the audience it’s not a question of choosing one character or the other. It is a question of choosing the right way even when all the characters are wrong and this, I think, is the proper goal of the moral imagination which art should provoke.
As usual Mr. Lavy has placed the responsibilities for this provocation in very good hands. Mr. Lavy himself in the dual role as Marmeladov and Svidrigailov creates an uneasy combination of pathos, bathos, and human evil that would swallow a lesser actor alive. That it all seems so effortless and correct as though there were no other way it could be is tribute to his skill and reminds me that he remains one of Seattle’s most underrated performers. Sara Kaus also seems to me a perfect Sonya Marmeladova: completely devout without cynicism, never protesting the injustice of the world, always converting her personal suffering into a kind of sacrament. It takes great skill to play that role without veering off into the land of the saccharine and great courage to prevent it from becoming sermonic. The author himself is little help here: it is a long-standing joke between me and my friends that the only reason Dostoevsky doesn’t destroy Raskolnikov like he does all his other protagonists is because Raskolnikov converts to Christianity and that’s good enough for ol’ Fyodor. Ms. Kaus carries her role so quietly and elegantly that one can fail to appreciate how difficult it truly is.
It took me about twenty minutes to figure out what Tyler Polumsky was doing with his Raskolnikov. Once it dawned on me that he was probably taking Dostoevsky himself and his epiletic fevers as a model, I nodded and went along for the ride. He plays Raskolnikov unusually, portraying a constant struggle between the fever dream, the nightmare, and the poverty of a student’s life as things to be reined in by rational thought. This works a bit less well in the second scene with Porfiry Petrovich (played brilliantly by Jennifer Crooks with a nod toward the modernist gumshoe), but most of the times it’s quite good and at a couple moments illuminates the role exquisitely. Matt Sherrill’s Razumikhin is a brilliant comic foil for this. Mr. Sherrill takes the opposite approach from Mr. Polumsky. Instead of fretting hopelessly and never feeling satisfied in life he takes joy in the complete absurdity of it all, throwing himself gleefully into acceptance of the irrationality of everything — society, people, emotion, the German language. Raskolnikov’s movements are slight shifts of balance, subtle then jagged, occasionally explosive without ever exploding. On the other hand Mr. Sherrill’s Razumikhin is pure extroversion. Wide, swinging, off-balance, completely devil-may-care. It’s bravura work, and a thoughtful counterbalance to the dour personae around him.
The remainder of the ensemble is as I expect. I remain a huge fan of Annie Paladino and Emily Jo Testa, admiring them both here for their complete obeisance to the production. Both are exceptional, powerful actresses. Here they have sublimated their normally outstanding presences into the overall weave of the production doing their level best to become as music to the production, and so they have. That music, headed up by Zhenya Lavy on the hurdy-gurdy, is not a minor element, neither is it a mere mood inducer. It assumes the quality of opera at its finest, continuing and contrasting the emotion of the dialogue, and merging with it to create something greater than either individually. APL refer to it as “polyphony.” I think back to my teacher’s words about the purely theatrical spectacle, the extending of the actor’s physical mechanism and the audience’s imagination into a shared space of confession.
Ultimately that is the point of Crime+Punishment: confession purges sin. It is the point, too, of the Akropolis production. To remove the dishonest and the bourgeois from the stage is to purify the theater. Just as Raskolnikov’s confession purges him of the sins of guilt, the actors’ confession purges them of the sins of Deadly Theater and opens up a new path toward the honest shared communal experience of theater. Community problems like discussions of citizenship, morality, rights and such ought to be solved in community spaces, and the theater is the community space ne plus ultra for presenting those legitimate concerns. Theater can go far beyond bourgeois psychological melodrama. So why doesn’t it? The ethical discussion in works like Crime and Punishment has yet to be resolved. There are plenty more masterpieces who need their tarnish similarly removed. But these works, if performed at all, get treated like museum pieces, with all the seriousness of a game of dress-up and a fraction of the fun. There are very few works the caliber of the Akropolis Performance Lab’s Crime + Punishment that go beyond “illustrated text.” If we’re to survive the next century as a species, our artists had better stop merely illustrating text and start trying something new — or old.