Crime and Punishment may be brief, but its passages are vivid and moving

If memory holds, I tried reading Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment when I was a dutiful little swot of about seventeen, and didn't get much beyond the murder of the old pawnbroker. It's one of those seminal works I'm sort of ashamed of not having read but probably never will now, along with War and Peace and most of Marcel Proust (forty pages of Remembrance of Things Past left me feeling as if the air had been entirely sucked out of the room). If it counts for anything, I did get all the way through Joyce's Ulysses, though the only things I remember now are Molly's soliloquy, the kidneys that Leopold Bloom cooked up for breakfast, and Germinal's wonderful dramatization of Ulysses in Nighttown a few years back.

So while I watched the Boulder Ensemble Theatre's Crime and Punishment, I had to marvel at how well writers Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus had distilled the Russian master's great opus into a ninety-minute theater piece, performed by just three actors, while still maintaining the work's gravitas.

The central character, as most people will at least faintly remember, is Raskolnikov, a destitute student who has decided to kill the pawnbroker with whom he haggles over his meager possessions. Surprised in the act, he kills the woman's kindly sister, too. His motivations are muddled. He wants the pawnbroker's money, of course, but he also believes that the death of this grasping, dishonest and insignificant person ultimately benefits society, a small evil bringing about a public good. Humankind is divided between ordinary and extraordinary men, he theorizes, and as one of the latter, he can arrogate to himself the power of life and death. But guilt does its corrosive work and, over time, his mind begins to unravel. He compares his crime with the actions of the prostitute Sonia, whose commitment to Christianity remains pure and strong, even as her work feeds her starving family. The play's action is framed by Raskolnikov's conversations with a police investigator, Porfiry, a man of devious wisdom, whose genial, unthreatening approach and pointed questions eventually coax out a confession. "Don't we all consider ourselves Napoleons?" Porfiry asks. "Do the extraordinary men have consciences?"

James O'Hagan-Murphy does an admirable job with the difficult role of Raskolnikov; it's hard to inspire audience empathy with all that soul-searching and swirling Russian self-dramatization. Crystal Verdon Eisele plays several female roles, making Sonia smooth and appealing, if sometimes a touch stagey. And Chris Kendall's Porfiry is a quiet wonder of humor and restraint.

This staged version of Crime and Punishment may be brief, but it wouldn't be Dostoyevsky if it weren't talky, consisting more of people pondering philosophical conundrums than action. But many passages are vivid and moving: Sonia reading from the Bible about the raising of Lazarus (Christianity and mercy are important themes in the book), Raskolnikov's dream about the horribly abused old horse, and his musings about our powerful, instinctual longing for life. For a condemned man, he says, an eternity spent on a cramped ledge over a howling abyss will seem preferable to what awaits him.

Some of the ideas felt dated while I watched, but I realized later how germane they still are. Raskolnikov's belief in his right to make decisions about another life is delusional on the face of it, but if you think for a moment, you realize it's the same right assumed by any leader who sends troops into battle, any judge sentencing a prisoner to death, and any politician who deliberately cuts off health care for the poor on the grounds that some lives are expendable and some deaths serve a greater good.

 
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