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Theatre Review (La Jolla): Notes from Underground by Dostoevsky at La Jolla Playhouse

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Fyodor Dostoevsky was raised in the poorest section of Moscow, one that had a cemetery for criminals, a lunatic asylum, and an orphanage for abandoned babies. This environment was the inspiration for his lifelong interest in the poor and oppressed. Later in life he became part of a literary intellectual group during a time of political upheaval. He and his fellow intellectuals were condemned to Siberia where he was the sole survivor. He suffered from epilepsy and had severe bouts of depression and was devastated by the death of his wife and soon thereafter, his brother. It was at this time he wrote the groundbreaking novella Notes from Underground in which the main character records his thoughts as he contemplates the corruption and shallowness of society.

Translating this into a theatrical piece would seem an insurmountable task but director Robert Woodruff and the fearless actor Bill Camp have done just that, resulting in a devastating evening at the theatre.

Camp seems to be an actor without ego, for it seems the story is more important than any hesitation in using any unpleasant and even violent parts of his nature.

The “Man” in this piece wants his thoughts recorded before he ends his life. Living underground, he decides to make one last attempt to fit into society so he knocks on the door of someone he knows doesn’t like him. His friend decides to let him come along to a restaurant, mainly so the friend and his comrades can humiliate this poor soul. “Man” exits but returns to the apartment only to find a pathetic whore whom he proceeds to humiliate and later berate and rape.

Director Woodruff has used certain theatrical devices to energize and make apparent what is essentially an inner monologue. Woodruff has “Man” set up a camera to record his thoughts and actions. He has added two musicians, Michael Attias, and Merrit Jansen. Ms. Jansen, a beautiful and talented actress, doubles as the humiliated whore. David Zinn has created a basement-like room that is covered in snow, thus bringing St. Petersburg inside. Mark Barton is the lighting designer, Peter Nigrini provides provocative projections, and Moria Sine Clinton is the costume designer.

This is not an “easy” night in the theatre and made some members of the audience uneasy, bored, or heading for the exits. Between the work of the creators, director, and phenomenal actor, I was riveted. The production comes from the Yale Repertory and will be performed at the La Jolla Playhouse until Oct. 17th.

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