Notes from Underground
nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
February 22, 2008
Sometimes I think we were never meant to sit alone in a comfy chair reading fiction. Yes, there is something to be said for the intimacy of the experience, but so much is lost when reading alone in your room. After being fortunate enough to witness The Brick's production of Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground I realized that there was so much that I missed in my reading of it that came to vivid and surprisingly hilarious life when spoken.
The adaptation follows the story very closely. The novel is divided into two parts. The first takes place when our unnamed main character (dubbed Underground Man by critics and over the years it has stuck) is in his 60s and deals with Underground Man's philosophy of free will, self-loathing and contempt for society.
The second part takes place when he was in his mid-20s and covers specific events from his life. This section is the practical outline of the more abstract ideas he gives us in the first part. He is both repulsed by and afraid of other people and any attempts at interaction usually result in his own humiliation. He obsesses over an officer from whom he perceives some sort of disrespect. He pushes himself on a group of old school friends in a restaurant and makes a fool of himself as he alternately ridicules them and begs for their attention. He meets a young prostitute and persuades her that her lifestyle will only lead to misery. He invites her to his house but when she arrives he is insulted by her pity for him and he in turn humiliates her. She leaves and never returns. He reflects on this final incident with great pain.
The Brick has reconfigured its space a little for this show. A lobby has been created where normally the risers would be and at curtain time we are invited to "cross the precipice," up and over, into the backstage area where the show takes place. It is dark and a tight fit as we all find our seats around the playing area. The show is lit entirely by candle light which makes for a very hypnotizing experience because I found my eyes, like anxious moths, drawn to what faint light we were given. There is one beautiful segment in which there is no light at all except for the fading in and out of match light as the main character pops up here and there. The show is divided into nine segments, each having its own symphonic music played along with it. There are many occasions where the text and even emotions align perfectly with this music.
Michael Gardner does a truly extraordinary job staging this production in such a tiny space. I completely forgot where I was. His adaptation utterly captures every feeling of social awkwardness, intellectual frustration, and self-pity that Dostoyevsky conveys is his novel. But what I found to be so surprising is how funny the main character actually is. I never knew. When I read the book (granted I was much younger) I took him very seriously, but upon hearing the words spoken he is actually quite hilarious in an ironic and pathetic sort of way.
Gardner uses four supporting actors as narrators, other characters, and as Underground Man's subconscious thoughts, with each actor assigned to a personality trait. They are planted in the audience and spend about equal time sitting amongst us and on stage. At the end, Gardner stages an absolutely powerful scene in which we hear, in recorded voiceover, the final scene between Underground Man and the prostitute, while we watch the pain and torment wash over the face of our main character on stage.
Robert Honeywell plays the Underground Man. His performance is sublime. (And I never use the word sublime.) I was totally enthralled as I watched him teeter between conceit and self-hatred. There was a moment when I couldn't tell if he was laughing or crying. The ensemble—Moira Stone, Alyssa Simon, Mick O'Brien, and Heath Kelts—all do amazing work bringing their characters and the mind of the Underground Man to crystal-clear reality. Much of the time they are only using their voices to do so.
The odd thing about watching this show was that I never realized how much the novel had influenced my thinking. I read it so long ago I'd forgotten. So if you're reluctant to see this because you're afraid it will not be true to the original intent that we hold so dear, you can rest assured that The Brick has offered us a show that not only lives up to its literary genius but goes even farther to shedding some light on this deep and compelling character.