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Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2008

Coldblooded Crimes

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Given the right circumstances, and depending on your perspective of morality, even the most brutal, coldblooded murders can be justified. Whether the murders come about as the result of a pre-emptive military invasion or crude blows from a heavy blade, the laws that govern the rest of society, they say, do not apply to “extraordinary people.”

This type of morality was explored in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1866 novel Crime and Punishment. Dostoevsky’s masterwork about an ax murderer named Raskolnikov was most recently adapted for the stage by Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus, debuting in Chicago a few years back. On Feb. 14, director Patrick Holland brings this adaptation to the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre with Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.

Holland was introduced to the latest version of Crime and Punishment through Josh Schmidt, the sound designer for the original Chicago production. Holland first approached Cotter Smith of the Cornerstone Theatre Company with the idea of producing the Campbell/Columbus adaptation. Ultimately unable to stage the play with Cornerstone, the script eventually found a home with Milwaukee Chamber.

The adaptation has been praised in previous productions for editing down one of the most complex novels of the 20th century into a play that requires only three actors to perform the entire story in 90 minutes, without an intermission. Instead of focusing too specifically on cultural aspects of 19th-century Russia, Holland says the Milwaukee Chamber production plays up the universality of the story’s broader themes. We see the story from inside Raskolnikov’s mind. Holland compares the feeling onstage to TV’s “Law & Order” and the acclaimed Christopher Nolan film Memento, as mid-19thcentury Russia blurs into the human psyche.

Schmidt, who introduced the play to Holland, etches dark tones into the ambiance. Somewhere in the midst of it all is the distinct sound of a balalaika. In the Milwaukee Chamber production, Mic Matarrese plays Raskolnikov, a writer being questioned about two murdered women.

Milwaukee stage veteran Drew Brhel plays his interrogator, a police inspector named Porfiry. The talented Leah Dutchin, most recently seen in Next Act’s production of Paradise, plays several female roles.In the past, the adaptation has been criticized for not giving the actress much to do beyond reacting to the men, but Holland says this version of the script is much more balanced. The production does, in fact, show the murders. And being the only female in the cast, it’s inevitable that Dutchin will be playing the victims in flashback scenes. Holland describes the murders staged here as “snapshots” that are “very stylized.”

“When the ax comes out, it’s kind of a shock,” Holland says. Jokingly, he adds that Crime and Punishment, which opens on Valentine’s Day, should make for “a good date play.”