Dostoevsky ripped his guts out to write “Crime and Punishment.” But to know true suffering, Dostoevsky would have to see what his countryman Kama Ginkas has done to his novel. Pouncing on one marginal character — Katerina Ivanovna (K.I.), the widow of Raskolnikov’s drinking companion Semyon Zakharovich Marmeladov, who was trampled to death when he staggered into the path of a passing horse carriage — the Russian director has expanded a single scene into an interminable monologue that to a captive audience can feel a lot like being pounded senseless by a team of horses.
Taking his cue from audience-participation staging techniques that were faddish in the 1960s, Ginkas herds observers into the first of two adjacent rooms where Katerina Ivanovna lives in squalor with her three starving children. K.I., as she is inexplicably called here, is dying of tuberculosis and sinking into a raging state of madness.
Although too lusty of lung to convince anyone that her character is stricken with TB, Russian actress Oksana Mysina plays crazy with the kind of conviction you’d expect from someone who has performed the role 230 times in 14 countries. Enveloped in a flapping greatcoat, she navigates the tight space with the jerky movements of the mentally disoriented, howling her grievances in the breathless stream-of-consciousness manner of the truly deranged.
Unable to pay her rent or support her family, K.I. is making frantic plans for a memorial dinner for her late husband, hoping to raise some desperately needed cash from the well-heeled guests. Ranting and raving about her aristocratic origins and the abuse she took from her drunken husband, she lashes out at everyone she sees — or fantasizes seeing — among the assembled guests, including her German landlady, her dead husband and Raskolnikov, the cause of all her misery. And us.
Poor us. After being browbeaten for nearly an hour in a harangue of Russian and pidgin English, the “guests” are herded into a larger room painted from ceiling to floor in a glaring institutional shade of stark white. Presiding at a long table on which is set a threadbare banquet — a single bottle of vodka and a solitary piece of stale bread — K.I. proceeds to entertain stricken observers by forcing her ragged children to sing and recite French verse. Cowering in a corner, the little tykes can manage only blank stares of mute misery.
There are limits, of course, to the modern-day theatrical fiction of audience participation. Sheep that we are, we tend to sit quietly and dig our fingernails into our palms as K.I. works the room, browbeating her children and obsessively repeating her delusional grievances. But in the heyday of the Living Theater, feisty auds surely would have emptied their pockets and tossed the kids coins and cough drops before they stormed the emergency exit and ran screaming into the alley.