Off-Broadway Review: CRIME AND PUNISHMENT (Phoenix Theatre Ensemble at the Gural Theatre)

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by Paola Bellu on January 23, 2024

in Theater-New York


Following his return from a decade in exile in Siberia as a dissenter against the Romanov order, Fyodor Dostoevsky intended his second novel, written as much to pay off gambling debts as to share a story, to be called The Drunkards. It would depict how alcohol destroys a family from the inside out. But slowly the pen of this playful polemicist took a different course: Dostoevsky now wants to flesh out a theory into fiction. Before it was published in 1866, the character of Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov had taken over what would become Crime and Punishment (1866).

Josh Tyson and Elise Stone

Considering that we are talking about one of literature’s greatest masterpieces, to turn the novel’s 700 pages into a 90-minute play for three actors is to be considered by most a challenging task. The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, led by Craig Smith and Elise Stone, is presenting an adaptation by Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus that does a tremendous job by keeping only events and monologues. The play employs flashbacks of an interrogation both to recreate a crime and to chronicle a murderer’s evolution from hubris to regret. This gives a perfect idea of the characters, the plot and its complexity. Yet under Karen Case Cook’s direction at the Gural Theatre, the production doesn’t quite detonate, even as the triad of thespians give it their all.

John Lenartz

The story follows the arrogant, helpless, poor young student called Raskolnikov (Josh Tyson) who is on stage the whole time. He lives in Saint Petersburg, his family has sacrificed all they had so he could succeed, but he is not studying, not working, just thinking of how unfair life is, impotent in front of injustice, a slave of his delirious rationalizations.

Josh Tyson

He falls in love with Sonya (Elise Stone) who has just become a prostitute to support her drunken father, her abusive stepmother, and starving young siblings. In the book, she is a pale, quiet, pious Russian teenager, a sacrificial lamb madly in love with Raskolnikov. A seasoned actress, Stone appears more like an acting coach doing her best with minimalistic staging and an impossible role. If you did not know the story, it took a while to understand what was going on and, if you read it, their relationship felt unbelievable.

Josh Tyson

To solve his problems and to help the people he loves, Raskolnikov decides to kill the nasty pawnbroker Alyona Ivanova (also played by Stone who is extremely effective in this role, as in all the other female roles) and he is finally forced to confront the consequences of his actions, the point of the story. We have been aware of the crime being committed before we see it happening on stage because Raskolnikov has been interrogated, on and off, by the lead investigator Porfiry Petrovich. John Lenartz gives Petrovich the right eccentricity and the needed gravitas, helping us understand Raskolnikov’s mental anguish by wearing him down with his questions. He also plays Sonya’s father, Marmeladov, a tragic drunk full of regrets, and the other male characters.

Elise Stone

Dostoevsky’s monster mash — guilt triggering suffering, remorse inspiring a confession, forgiveness yielding redemption — is ultimately thwarted by too many holes in the production, which destroy the dynamics and retard the action, even as the play feels rushed. Buffy Cardoza‘s set consists of three small metal boxes without props for the set, and there is almost no lighting narrative from Bill Schmidt to define space and time or a dramatic one if we are supposed to be in Raskolnikov’s head. Debbi Hobson uses only bare costumes to highlight the change of characters — Stone especially needed better outfits. Along with more breathing room, all of these are needed to alleviate the complexity of the text, to help us transition from rationalization to guilt and finally to redemption. Using only words, it feels like a well-staged reading.

John Lenartz

Still Phoenix Theatre’s offering is the only Crime and Punishment in town: So, lovers of the novel and the author, who are quite correct in their adoration, may pay a pilgrimage to Gural Theatre if they wish. It’s great text. Unfortunately, that’s all we’re left with.

Josh Tyson

photos by Brian Jenkins

Crime and Punishment
Phoenix Theatre Ensemble
Gural Theatre at A.R.T/New York Theatres, 502 West 53rd Street
ends on January 28, 2024
Tues-Sat at 7; Sun at 3
for tickets ($75), visit Phoenix Theatre Ensemble
plays in tandem with Drinks With Dead Poets by Glyn Maxwell (Feb. 2-11)

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