Crime and Punishment at the Soap Factory

12 Apr

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There’s an old Borscht Belt joke that has two patrons at a restaurant complaining about the food. “The food here is so terrible,” the first exclaims. “Yes,” agrees the second, “and the portions are so small!”

Live Action Set’s Crime and Punishment feels very much in that vein, including the “terrible” part – as in, full of or causing terror. The narrative of Dostoyevsky disappears into installation of the set in the Soap Factory, you could be a scholar of Russian literature and come away with no idea of what happens in the book itself. But the tone – pre-Dickensian Russian poverty, the debauchery and depravity of desperation, is all-encompassing and inescapable. The design of the show is audaciously engrossing, a triumph of minutiae and disorienting surprise that has antecedents more in the work of Gregor Schneider and Ed Kienholz than traditional theater design. There are diaries to discover, phones that ring and pass on furtive, horror-filled messages, peepholes that open up new worlds, not necessarily more pleasant or enticing than the one at hand.

Into this built horror are thrown almost two dozen performers, characters seeking escape and and respite, domineering control, drink, and maybe even love. There are hookers and hawkers, landladys and repo men, cops and villains, ingenues and and the shadow of death. You can follow any of them singularly, or bounce between characters, but the strength of Crime and Punishment is in the moments of pure surprise – an achingly sweet and powerfully lithe dance between a Cossack and his lover, the moment of holding all tension before an axe is brought down, being pulled aside by a character and told of a dream where you were together.

Depending on how you move through the space you may experience any or none of this, and that is the second part of the joke. At an hour’s run time, a visit to the Soap Factory basement barely scratches the surface of what it is or what it could be. When the performers came through, banging on trash can lids and herding people together, my first hope was that here was the use of the space to bring people together for a shared moment to create something together that could then be diffused back into the playing space. But no, they were coming through to clear us out, which was as terrible and jolting as anything that had been a part of the show.

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