Friday, November 12, 2010

THEATER: Notes from Underground

Photo/Joan Marcus

A man sits in a lonely chair in a lonelier room, talking into a video camera, but really, to himself. The walls are as stained as his mattress, and striped with construction marks, as if forever waiting to be finished; his roof is a series of bars: only a few haphazard cardboard shingles remain. In this squalid St. Petersburg, every inch of his room is coated in snow--or perhaps the shredded pages of his hopeless novels. The Man (Bill Camp) sits and negates himself with his words, telling us one thing, admitting that it's a lie, and then confessing that he has lied about the lie: "I am not at all the joker you think, or as you might think." But though he considers himself to be living in the existentially bleak Underground--if not always physically, then at least mentally--, he is determined to be honest, and he snorts at his own rage: his eyes stretch and his lips lapse into momentary smirks. As if he cannot help himself, for in fact, he cannot help himself, and it is with this remarkable theatrical talent that Camp is able to find the playfulness in an otherwise caustic and unremittingly bleak play, Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground (in a translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky).

It helps that this is a passion project of Camp's: that he has labored to pare down the novella into a hundred-minute play (very well supported by his director and co-adapter, Robert Woodruff), only makes the play seem more lived in. Additionally, their edits--which focus on the more active second part of the novella--help the play to find a perspective with which the audience can connect. To quote from an excised section, which may have been too on-the-nose within the play: "In despair there are the most intense enjoyments, especially when one is very acutely conscious of the hopelessness of one's position." The play succeeds not by taming its anti-hero, but by ceding itself fully to the misanthropic Man's "conscious inertia," by gussying up the starkness of his world, from David Zinn's ruin of a set to Peter Nigrini's excellent (and often distortingly engulfing) projections and Mark Barton's remarkably super-natural lighting (not eerie, but something more than realistic).

What begins in a straightforward fashion, then, a strict series of rants that establish the Man's madness--and Dostoyevsky's tone--soon turns away from what might be called the Elevator Repair Service aesthetic (an emphasis on text) and delightfully approaches the physically ambitious reimaginings of directors like Ivo van Hove and Jay Schieb (who radicalize the text). The latter section --which at times can leave you gasping for air--is a stronger piece of theater, but it owes a large debt to the emptiness of the first half.

After all, Notes from Underground is an existential work, and it takes much stock in appearances--particularly in the way the Man sees (or fails to see) himself. After the first thirty minutes, the Man begins to interact with Michael Attias and Merrit Janson--previously relegated to adding ambient sounds from the wings--and we immediately hear an upward squeal in Camp's pitch, see an awkward shift in his posture, and note the ways in which he now tries to fit in and keep up with his "colleagues." At the same time, we're never less than conscious of the physical effect that has on his barely submerged rage; Camp is a time-bomb, and each shameful outburst charges him that much more. By the final third of the play--unable to hide his shame in the presence of a prostitute (Janson)--he implodes, physicalizing his self-effacing "wit," the lights and cameras fading, the torment of existence rushing back in.

It's heady stuff, especially on the page. And though this production pointedly disconnects scenes (Woodruff often has the actors perform to cameras, off- or up-stage), Notes from Underground is so vacuum-tight that it sucks you in. It is a crushing night of theater; the sort that also carries with it a triumphant breath of fresh air.

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