"Crime and Punishment" a true Chamber production
"Like a beautiful, edgy piece of music... a true 'chamber' piece."
That's how Michael Wright, the artistic director for the Milwaukee Chamber Theater, refers to his latest theatrical production.
This past Thursday, the Milwaukee Chamber Theater (MCT) opened 2008's first production, "Crime and Punishment," in the Third Ward. This adapted version of Dostoevsky's 1866 novel brought new challenges to MCT as it demands only three actors play all the pivotal characters. And as Wright puts it, it "is exactly the kind of work we should be doing."
Despite the obvious challenges of minimizing a 500-plus page book into a taut 90-minute play, the work's small, intimate style is what Wright seeks for the Milwaukee Chamber Theater. Wright, who began as artistic director of MCT in 2005, has worked to initiate a return to "chamber" style theater in Milwaukee.
"I firmly believe that the word 'chamber' in our organization's name should be an integral part of our identity. Taking a cue from the world of music, I consider a 'chamber piece' to be an intimate work presented by a small ensemble of highly-skilled players. The main focus should be on the power of the writing ... But I don't ever want to lose sight of our purpose. We're storytellers first and foremost; everything should stem from and revolve around the story and the words," says Wright.
"(MCT) was founded by a group of actors that had a strong commitment to and affinity for great literature. We're still following that lead. To encourage and nurture emerging playwrights, we've established a New Works Series which includes a script development initiative and an annual Young Playwrights Festival. I suppose that's what most clearly delineates us -- our literary bent."
Wright's vision for small stage, small cast productions has brought such hits as "Moonlight and Magnolias," "Talking Heads" and "Trying" to the theater in the last year. Each of the productions, featuring anywhere from two to six actors, fits into the theater's renewed mission for strong writing and solid production with an emphasis on including and engaging the local community. "Crime and Punishment," aims to do just the same.
"Crime and Punishment," which was recently a huge New York off-Broadway hit, already has a growing buzz in Milwaukee. Wright hopes the show will draw enthusiastic audiences here, too.
"We have an incredible director, cast and design team who are passionately investing in this project. They're all just throwing themselves into it. I feel pretty confident that our patrons will find a lot to talk about when they leave the theater."
Director Patrick Holland took on the challenge of directing this adaptation which investigates the darker side of the human psyche through a gripping narrative of murder and betrayal.
"It's very visual and raw. The performance will leave the audience discussing its ambiguities long after seeing the show," says Holland.
"The way Curt and Marilyn, the playwrights, have adapted the play makes the story resonate in a contemporary and psychological way. It's very compelling," Holland says.
Holland says he hopes the show will spark discussion among viewers.
"I hope they argue the play's themes of redemption, Christianity and psychological crime. I also hope the audience walks away wanting to see more productions of theatre like this," says Holland.
My Review of this show (more reviews by Rex Winsome of Insurgent Theatre can be found here: http://rwinsome.blogspot.net) Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus' script is the only way I can think to condense something like Crime and Punishment into a 90 minute play. Scattered impressions of the story arranged to cover the exposition as clearly and efficiently as possible give us a very good surface understanding of what this deep probing novel is about, but Chamber's Crime and Punishment doesn't engage with Dostoevsky's themes, it doesn't give the audience an expanded understanding of the human condition, of guilt, or of the phenomenon of spontaneous self-defeat, it's more a book report. It's a very good book report, though! The stage design is beautiful. Psychological lighting and sound are very effective throughout, with the exception of the overwrought, cliche cinematic effects during the murder and the final moments of the play. (Does anyone really read an evil red glow or a beam of redemptive light as anything but the most flat cartoon of these symbols?) The set designs and costumes were also beautiful, depicting the scattered unhinged nature of the main character more effectively than the actor himself could. I would've liked to see some real filth though, greasy, dirty smudges rather than painted on stains and immaculate white debris. The acting was very capable. Mic Matarrese portrayed a dense complex character, unfortunately not the anxious, fretting, self-hating and unreliable Rashkolnikov needed to truly explore Dostoevsky's themes, but a full, believable, complex figure nonetheless. Leah Dutchin's three very different roles were all handled capably, but none spectacularly. I would rather have seen three actors able to focus and get to the core of these characters.The genial manipulative inspector Porfiry (played by Drew Brehl) was the most fully realized, but his choice for Marmeladov as a pathetic smiling drunk rather than a miserable specimen of complete human worthlessness missed the point of this character. But the script is partially at fault for this as well. It's condensation left out key elements of Rodya's family, and with them, the root correlations between the characters in this story. These correlations are mostly unstated by the novel's unreliable narrator, but when considered, they provide the true motive, not only for Rashkolnikov's crimes, but also his actions toward and concern for Sonia, Lisaveta, and Marmeladov. Rashkolnikov has to do what he does to prove that he is not a worthless mooch like Marmeladov, and that his sister is not a sacrificial whore like Sonia. Instead of this explanation, this script focuses on all the post-hoc justifications and mental gymnastics Rashkolnikov confuses himself with, which leaves the audience ultimately unsatisfied with his entire character arch. There were many moments of great theatre in this production. My favorite was the moments when Rashkolnikov directly addressed the audience. Matarrese Penetrated the 4th wall with impressive care, subtlety and earnestness, allowing the play to quietly but clearly shift into our reality and then back to the story. Such things are risky experiments given Chamber's older more traditional audiences, i would've liked to see more, but most people paying over $30 for theatre don't have much tolerance for the things I'm looking for on the stage. If the goal of this production was to turn a novel about the dregs of humanity floundering in the absurdity of life and self-defeating crisis into a safe and even uplifting condensation of dusty classic literature for the simple amusement of Chamber's aging bourgeois patrons, then the play was hugely successful, but it leaves the rest of us wanting something more.
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