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A CurtainUp Review
Notes From Underground
First, a caveat : This s is not for the weak-stomached. Prior to its New York premiere, assorted audience members at Yale Repertory Theatre stalked out offended by the nudity, sexual situations, violence and pungent language.
Actually this is the second version of the story to show up in New York in two years. I liked the Brick Theater's staging at the 2008 New York International Fringe Festival with Robert Honeywell as Underground Man. However, the current permutation has the advantage of being more animated in spirit, with the excellent Bill Camp as the defeated protagonist and projectionist Peter Nigrini's ingenious use of a tiny video camera to project his image on a giant screeni. While the Brick's intimate space in Brooklyn better captured the psychological interiority of Underground Man the production now at the Baryshnikov Arts Center rescues Dostoevsky's classic from the seminar room and pushes it right into the You Tube era.
Happily, this interpretation transcends its grime. Despite the abject nature of Underground Man, one is made to feel kinship with him and he becomes a kind of everyman. You might not like him, but you relate to his probing insights into the human condition.
In his cluttered subterranean office, dusted with snow by set designer David Zinn, he recounts his life from the time he entered the civil service in his 20s until he drifted, willy-nilly, into the Underground. He often contradicts himself for he is lost in the labyrinth of his mind. The details of his sorry life story take up almost two intermissionless hours, but you will be riveted to every word uttered by this first and most prominent, anti-hero ever created. Like Don Quixote, Hamlet, and Faust, he is one of the key bearers of modern consciousness.
Unlike traditional theater, this is less a play than an extended meditation, with live jarring music composed by Michael Attias intermittently performed by cast-mates Merritt Janson and Michael Attias. Although Woodruff and Camp remain generally faithful to the text, they skip over some meaty psychological rants in the novella's early section. These textual cuts may make purists wince and also make it difficult to tofully trace the emotional journey and mental deterioration of Underground Man. But this very streamlined version does highlight the protagonist's relationships with old friends. His s encounters with a prostitute named Liza (played by the luminous Merritt Janson) are by far the most compelling scenes. Underground Man finds a sick pleasure in tormenting others and his cruelty to Lize is downright shocking and uncovers the Great Void that he occupies. But Liza poignantly reaches out to him for hope and redemption. Directing with a firm hand, Robert Woodruff pulls no punches in these raw emotional scenes (one episode is literally off-the-wall), and rightly injects no false sentimentality.
If you're game for a soul searching theater experience Notes from Underground may be the ticket for you.. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, this story of a man who lets his tongue run away with him, but whose passionate voice proves to be indelible.