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Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2008

Mind of a Murderer

Theater Reviews

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Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of Crime and Punishmentinvites audiences to enter the mind of a murderer. It’s a cramped and tawdry place. Oddly angled walls painted a bilious green seem to close in on you; disembodied sounds emanate from the background and doors swoosh open and shut, marking phantomlike entrances and offering glimpses of a diaphanous limbo in which the protagonist’s fearsome existence appears to be couched. Rarely does stagecraft, sound and lighting play such a significant role as it does here in this pareddown production.

Adapted for the stage by Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus, this three-character play makes a brave and largely successful attempt to distill the rich cast of characters and complex themes of Dostoyevsky’s immense literary masterwork into a 90-minute play. It unfolds the tale of Raskolnikov, an impoverished student who murders a rancorous pawnbroker to assert his superiority over the common man. Soon after enacting the grisly crime he falls into a delirium of guilt and paranoia. His internal conflict becomes the major setting of the play. Rather than arranged chronologically, it’s structured around Raskolnikov’s interrogations by Porfiry, a subtle and humane interrogator who draws out Raskolnikov’s confession with the patience of an indulgent parent. Their polite game of cat and mouse introduces an element of the absurd, which is very fitting.

Porfiry, an efficient and benign confessor, looks as if he could have stepped out of a Pinter play. Raskolnikov has the resigned gravity of one of Beckett’s tramps. The recurring refrain concerning Raskolnikov’s religious beliefs is strangely comical. Most poignant of all, though, are the silences overtaking Raskolnikov when he is alone on the stage staring into the middle distance or whipping his head about in a fugitive manner. They represent a purgatory of sorts.

Drew Brhel shrouds Porfiry’s shrewdness in sincere affability. Mic Matarrese is a com- posed and aloof Raskolnikov, whose strange moist stare and the occasional tortured twisting of his features are subtle indicators of sensations of guilt, bitterness, even exultation that flit beneath the surface. Leah Dutchin plays multiple female roles, though most of her time is devoted to playing the saintly Sonia, a young girl with whom Raskolnikov forms an unlikely attachment. Dutchin relays the goodness of her character, but not the inner luminosity that finally gives Raskolnikov the strength to confess and urges him to quite literally make his way toward the light at the end of the play. As he gravely quits the stage, the audience is left with little doubt that he has chosen the path to redemption. The merciless glare of the light makes it equally clear he will pay for it dearly.

Through March 9 at the Broadway Theatre Center.
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