Notes from Underground
nytheatre.com review by Will Fulton
November 11, 2010
Bill Camp and Robert Woodruff's staging of Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky is about as faithful as an adaptation could hope to be. Based on Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky's definitive translation of the 1864 novel, the text has been essentialized, but remains largely intact. The novel, a landmark of early-modern fiction, catalogs the self-contradictory and meandering musings of a misanthropic retired civil servant in St. Petersburg. The first half ("Underground") is the Underground Man's ranting excoriation of the emerging Western philosophies of social utopianism and better living through reason, praising instead man's fundamental irrationality and the destructive impulse as a necessity for free will. The second half ("Apropos of the Wet Snow") details a few anecdotes from his twenties that inform and illustrate the philosophy explicated in the first.
Dostoevsky's tongue-in-cheek declamation of Modernity's foundations was prescient both for its formal experimentation and its harsh scrutiny toward some of the nascent ideological conflicts that would shape the twentieth century. The Underground Man's explanation of how intelligence leads to inertia and ennui feels particularly relevant now as history's most informed and empowered citizenry grapples with political disaffection and digital narcissism. Woodruff cleverly insinuates this parallel by framing the show as a sort of YouTube confessional, a potentially kitschy form that feels entirely true to the spirit of the original in this case. Camp spends much of the show addressing or carrying around a small webcam whose appropriately unflattering and low-fidelity feed is projected onto the back wall.
The production team does a remarkable job of utilizing the theatre not as an analog for a literal narrative space, but rather for the more novelistic, intimate, cerebral space of the Underground Man's neuroses. David Zinn's bleak set of a messy, snow-filled office establishes his hyperbolically wretched world, which is deftly transformed into the story's other locations by Mark Barton's lighting design, Peter Nigrini's projections, and Michael Attias's sound design. Attias plays and mixes the sound from the stage, creating a landscape of disparate musical samples, urban noise, and dissonant live instrumentation played both by him and Merritt Janson across the stage. They make particularly effective use of the speakers' placement to immerse the audience in the Underground, with a car honk coming from the back or dripping water above.
Central to the play's success is Camp's visceral performance as the Underground Man. Camp takes a role that could easily settle into dull talking-headsmanship and invigorates it with an imposingly physical performance. He acts with his sweat and spit. When he describes the exquisite pain/pleasure of total humiliation, we understand it as feeling deep in the chest. As a harsh and often quite unlikable character, he remains accessibly human and uncomfortably relatable.
Woodruff and Camp have accomplished the formidable task of both remaining entirely true to the spirit of the original novel and rendering it relevant to contemporary audiences. Their apt translation of Dostoevsky's text gives necessary voice once more to the Underground Man, who cries out from the cracks at our feet to remind us of the absurdity and chaos lurking just beneath the surface of even our best-established ideologies.