WASHINGTON — Every so often, something happens to suggest that the reasonable people who are supposed to be running the world have as uncertain a grip on it as everybody else.
We suddenly realize that the people on top haven't been going on the facts at all but on intuition, a kind of grand hunch about what the world is or ought to be. Facts will be adduced, invented or suppressed in order to bolster this hunch.
This is very much the way artists work--with this difference: Artists know they're inventing. People in high places can come to believe in their hypothetical worlds, to the point where anything that doesn't jibe with them must be eliminated. At this point, it's axiomatic that "a true leader is permitted anything."
The line seems particularly pointed at the Arena Stage, which isn't too many blocks from the committee rooms where the Iran- contra matter is being investigated.
But it probably seemed just as pointed in Moscow when it reverberated there three years ago. It comes from Soviet director Yuri Lyubimov's adaptation of Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment."
Now this may not have been the specific line that got Lyubimov in trouble with his government. Perhaps it was this one: "I only have one life to live. I refuse to sit around waiting for universal happiness."
Or: "Even our highest officials are skipping rope these days."
In any case, it was typical of the stuff that Lyubimov had been trying to sneak into his productions at Moscow's Taganka Theatre for too long, in the opinion of the Soviet Ministry of Culture.
Enough, finally, was enough. On the eve of "Crime and Punishment's" London premiere, Lyubimov was told not to come home to the Soviet Union--he didn't work there anymore. Will Mr. Gorbachev reverse that decision? Perhaps. Meanwhile Lyubimov continues directing in the West, using an interpreter.
He came to Arena Stage at the invitation of its artistic director, Zelda Fichandler, who saw his work at the Taganka when Arena Stage played Moscow in '73. Next he goes to Boston to restage another of his Moscow productions for Robert Brustein's American Repertory Theatre, "The Master and Margarita."
On the strength of his work here, "master" describes him. This was not a "Crime and Punishment" for those who didn't know "Crime and Punishment." As someone said of Kean playing Shakespeare, it was like reading a story by flashes of lightning. I didn't really put it together until I reread the novel.
Lyubimov's aim isn't to put it together but to smash it apart, like an ax shattering a skull. The story is splintered, with each scene leaping out of the dark and receding into it, to the sighs of a toneless choir. We're in Raskolnikov's nightmare. Can I really have taken an ax and murdered two women. . . ?
We file past the scene of the crime as we take our seats, but we don't see the deed itself. Lyubimov is less interested in the crime than the punishment. What terrible tricks the mind can play even on a young man who had thought himself as iron-willed as Napoleon.
The Arena's Raskolnikov, Randle Mell, doesn't fixate on his bloody ax, or on the look on the old moneylender's face just before he chopped her down. What haunts him is the door to her apartment.
Doors! Lyubimov's production bristles with them--bursting open, slamming shut, never at rest. Sometimes there will be a blinding light on the other side of the door. Who's out there? Sometimes a door glides across the stage on its own power. Sometimes Raskolnikov finds himself pressed against the door like Christ on the cross. At the end, a door becomes a coffin lid.
So the guilty mind takes an innocent object and turns it into a threat. This is much more harrowing than if Lyubimov has used a conventional image of horror. It's also more like Dostoevsky. But the image is Lyubimov's and he knows when not to use it. He never clutters the scene for the sake of a symbol.
As in the book, the tautest scenes are between Mell's sullen Raskolnikov and Richard Bauer's Inspector Petrovich, an absent-minded detective who can look at a man and read his every thought. Mell's Raskolnikov, whose knowledge of life is largely theoretical, can't put Petrovich together. But he knows he's got Raskolnikov's number. How to throw him off the scent?
Arrogance? Righteous indignation? It all rolls off Petrovich's back. My dear fellow, who is accusing you of anything? It's as if Inspector Clouseau possessed the keenest criminal sense in Russia, and Raskolnikov's eventual surrender comes partly from exasperation. How demeaning to be seen-through by such a silly person!
Less effective, but no less well-acted, are the scenes with Raskolnikov's family and with the saintly prostitute Sonia (Kate Fuglei). In the novel, these scenes present a paradox: A killer can also be a good son, a protective brother, a concerned benefactor. To make them all a part of the same hallucination is to lose the contrast that we're meant to feel--Raskolnikov feels it, and doesn't enjoy it--between his two worlds.