Sunday, January 10, 2010

A night at the theater: ATL's "Crime & Punishment"

Whenever I meet someone who is new to the city, one of the first pieces of advice that I offer is, "Buy season tickets to Actors Theater."

Here are the reasons I typically give:

(1) When you buy season tickets, it's really hard to NOT use them. You've kind of committed yourself to anywhere from 3-9 plays. And that means a guaranteed 3-9 nights out. It's a luxury. I forces you to take a break and do something really nice for yourself. And if you're like me, and you're on a budget, you'll probably get tickets for weeknights. And what's nicer than being forced to take a break in the middle of the week.

(2) Again, if you're on a budget, take the plunge, buy the season ticket, and as the season wears on you'll forget the little sting to your bank account, and you'll feel like you're getting "free" nights out. (Trust me. It's all about the attitude.)

(3) If you say "Louisville" to your out-of-town friends, they'll say "Derby." Press them further, and they'll say "Slugger." Press your more cultured friends, and they'll say "Actors Theater." Or at least they'll say "Humana Festival." Because Actors is nationally respected, and we should all be proud and grateful that we have the Humana Festival.

(4) Finally, a night at Actors is always time and money well-spent. The plays I've seen (I've been a subscriber now for three seasons) have ranged from good to "I can't believe I just saw what I saw" amazing. Jaw-droppin', stranger-huggin' good.

ATL, at least temporarily, decided that I was "press," so I was super excited to receive two tickets to Friday night's production of "Crime & Punishment." I was even more excited because that meant I could give my subscription tickets to two friends who are just madly in love with Dostoevsky.

And I think that's something that you should get your head around if you go see "Crime & Punishment" (and you should). Russian writers are particularly polarizing, Dostoevsky especially. Some people are loopy for Russian epics. And I'm just not one of them.

This radically pared-down adaptation was directed by Sean Daniels, the Associate Artistic Director of Actors, and was presented in the round in the Bingham Theater. It featured three actors who never left the stage during the 90-minute production. Louisville's Jessica Wortham played a handful of female characters, but the two male leads-- Nick Cordileone and Lou Sumrall-- remained Raskolnikov and Porfiry throughout.

Cordileone's manic, paranoid performance was particularly riveting. I know it's not entirely kosher to compare actors to other actors, but one of the most compelling performances this year on TV was given by Jeremy Davies on LOST. Watching Cordileone's emotional collapse was like watching Davies's poor, tormented Daniel "Twitchy" Faraday dissolve into mania. The urge to rush from your seat and comfort the poor Raskolnikov, even when he was at his most threatening, made every moment of the climax difficult and uncomfortable. (in a good way).

The set design, by Tom Tutino, is dramatic and stark. There are essentially no props and no set pieces. Throughout, an ax is ominously embedded in the center of the "stone" stage, its handle askew, making the whole stage look like a creepy sundial. The actors move around it like its not even there. Large Russian icons ring the ceiling of the theater. Enormous onion dome-shaped lights hover over the stage and press down periodically as the pressure on Raskolnikov mounts until one, terribly brief but brilliant moment when they are used to gorgeously dramatic effect.

My Dostoyevsky-loving friends thought it was "amazing." (By the way, apparently there are a number of accepted spellings for the author's name: the ATL website uses one and their program uses another. I'm shaking it up in this post.) But I think that, because they read the book-- and loved it, their understanding of what happened on the stage was much more nuanced and fleshed out than mine was. I came away feeling kind of lukewarm.

Mostly, I wanted to ask questions. The onion dome lights, for instance. What a powerful moment that was when they were used to the full effect, but they were such a dominating presence in the staging for only 30 seconds of "wow." And, as I mentioned before, there was no stage dressing at all except for a couple of doors that rose pneumatically from the stage, again for mere moments. Why? Is there something symbolic about the doors? About the Russian iconography? I'm not really sure I understand the crime itself, to be honest.

After the play, we all went to the new-ish Louisville Beer Store (which deserves its own blog post and will get one soon-- love it!) and jawed about the play and the book until I felt like I had a clearer understanding and fewer questions. The reviews of this play have been fairly uniformly excellent, and my friends were moved and impressed. Maybe my lukewarmishness all boils down to not really being a fan of Russian literature in general?

But I started this blog post with "why you need to subscribe to Actors" because, in the end, a lukewarm night at ATL is an awesome way to spend an evening. Especially when you're with good, smart friends.

Crime and Punishment runs through 1/31. Adult tickets are $25-45, kids' tickets are $10. It's pretty intense, so it isn't recommended for kids younger than 11.

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