Adapted by James Fagan Tait
from the novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
NeWorld Theatre / PuSh co-production
in association with Vancouver Moving Theatre
Roundhouse Community Centre
January 27 - February 6

Nineteenth century Russian fiction has an excellent track record on Canadian stages. Nothing Sacred, George F. Walker's adaptation of Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, was a huge hit in Canadian (and U.S.) regional theatres in the late1980s. Directed by Morris Panych, it was revived last summer to great reviews at the Shaw Festival. Panych's own adaptation of Gogol's The Overcoat has had national and international success since its Vancouver Playhouse debut in the late '90s. Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov opens at Stratford this summer in a new adaptation by Jason Sherman.

Dostoevsky's other greatest novel, Crime and Punishment, provides the centrepiece for local theatre at this year's PuSh Festival. Produced by Camyar Chai's innovative NeWorld Theatre in conjunction with Vancouver Moving Theatre, adapted and directed by the offbeat and always interesting James Fagan Tait, featuring a premiere cast of 22 with live music and a first-rate design team, Crime and Punishment is a solid and sometimes spectacular rendering of the brilliant book. What it lacks in intensity and psychological acuity, it makes up for with strong acting, beautiful music, and an intelligent, uncompromising theatrical narrative.

If Karamazov was Dostoevsky's King Lear, his Hamlet was Crime and Punishment. It explores the psychological and spiritual condition of Raskalnikov, played here with dynamism and sensitivity by the attractive Kevin MacDonald. A young ex-student in St. Petersburg in 1865, he murders an old pawnbroker (Laara Sadiq), in part out of poverty, resentment and perhaps mental illness, in part because he has developed a Nietzschean philosophy that "a man can give himself permission to do anything." Other key characters in the adaptation include the two suitors of Raskalnikov's sister Dunya (Kerry Davidson), the snooty civil servant Luzhin (Allan Zinyk) and the smarmy wife-murderer Svidrigailov (Alex Ferguson), a sort of double for Raskalnikov. There's also a neighbour (Richard Newman) whose appalling drunkenness leads to his family's degradation and the prostitution of the eldest daughter, Sonya, who plays Mary Magdalene to Raskalnikov's inverted Jesus; and the police inspector (Tom Pickett) who investigates the murder and eventually realizes Raskalnikov's guilt. But most of the novel's drama is internal, providing the major challenge to a theatrical translation.

Tait solves that problem in a simple yet hauntingly effective way. At regular intervals the entire cast formally arrays itself in rows onstage and quietly sings the internal torment of Raskalnikov, and eventually Svidrigailov, accompanied by eerie music from an onstage trio's electric vibraphone, stand up bass and violin. These choral numbers, which also cleverly take care of the play's exposition, represent a collective version of the conscience which, in the novel much more clearly than in the play, Raskalnikov can't finally deny. The play is much muddier about both his motivations for the crime and the compulsions that drive him to his punishment. As effective as it is, Tait ultimately relies too heavily on this unvarying choral format, so that by the middle of the long second act the device loses its novelty.

As much as I admired the stark, monochromatic, fluid staging that moved the story along, shifting from choral presentation to semi-naturalistic scene work (furnishings are minimal, props are mimed), I kept looking for a more varied, more radically imaginative, expressionistic style. Raskalnikov's inner intensity and incipient madness call for a more explosive theatricality than Tait explores here. As well, that crucial intensity, the quality most evident in the novel, gets seriously diluted in this production by the sheer length of the evening (three hours plus), extended unnecessarily by Tait's decision to follow too many strands of subplot too late in the structure. It's a shame to lose the powerful momentum of Raskalnikov's pursuit of his punishment.

Still, this is an admirable, ambitious and exciting play. The performances are terrific throughout. In addition to the actors I've mentioned, standouts include Patti Allan as Raskalnikov's mother and especially Andrew McKee as his jocular best friend. Mara Gottler's dark, drab costumes are perfect, and Joelysa Pankanea's original score and musical direction, as well as her performance (I think) on vibes and percussion, are crucial elements in the show's success. The strange decision not to print programs has left me guessing at some of these credits.

Jerry Wasserman

last updated: Wednesday, February 2, 2005 11:50 AM
website design by Linda Fenton Malloy