A plain table; a bare mattress on a bare floor; a metal stool and a plain chair; books falling over in the corner; discarded plastic bins. It could be a room like that of any slovenly student in any gloomy city in any nondescript country—perhaps behind an Iron Curtain? Except that it’s all covered in a thick layer of snow. And the story dates from the 1860’s. And the man who lives here is 40. And as he begins to address us, it quickly becomes clear he’s no ordinary recluse and this ordinary room represents no ordinary place.
For this is Dostoevsky’s grim novella Notes from Underground, blasted to unexpectedly brilliant life in a stage adaptation by Robert Woodruff and the amazing actor Bill Camp. Accompanied by two actor-musicians who position themselves stage left and right behind assorted instruments, Mr. Camp wanders casually onstage, sits at his table and takes a drink. The female musician tunes a banjo.
At last night’s performance, a man in the audience blew his nose at this moment. Camp acknowledged him with a chuckle. We were pulled in right away.
But into what? Were we in for a gussied-up solo reading like something Spaulding Gray might have done, but with a set? The Man sets up a small camera on the table and checks the angle of his face, projected huge on a rear wall. And he begins to pontificate about consciousness, and himself, and what profits man, and himself, and how horrible it would be to surrender to determinism, to the “laws of nature”—and himself. We follow him because of the great novelist’s never-equalled skill with words. (The adaptation is based on the superb translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.)
And then slowly it’s the actor’s mesmeric pull taking over. He poses a test: “Is it possible to be perfectly candid with oneself?” He sets out to try. Projections of drab corridors and frantic drives and unbearable social events accompany the story as the Man leaves behind the expository section and begins his actual “notes” about events from 14 years before, when he imposed himself on an unwilling dinner party only to be humiliated, then found himself with a prostitute, Liza, played by the starkly effective Merritt Janson (the abovementioned female musician).
When he pitilessly describes the terrible end he foresees for Liza, her attempt to hurl herself out of her aquarium-like bedroom comes as a shock. It’s one of a number of sequences that approach dance, some of which involve not the sylph-like Liza but the paunchy, pasty Man himself. Camp uses movement like a dancer, speaking chapter and verse with a raised arm or a tumble down the stairs. And he talks, and he talks, twistedly and unlikeably yet with massive force, for close to two hours. It’s a stunning performance, fitted into a masterfully conceived staging enlivened by Peter Nigrini’s projections. (One quick moment: to show an acquaintance disdainfully lending the Man some rubles, a giant projected hand drops the money from its oversized flatland onto our squirming yet impossible-to-embarrass three-dimensional hero.)
Photo by Joan Marcus
“I only talk a good game,” the Underground Man confesses to Liza later, right before one of the uglier scenes you’ll see on stage this year. And to us: “I longed to be left alone in the Underground.” And there we leave him, but he hasn’t left us alone—far from it.
No, you don’t need to have read the book. Yes, come prepared to be moved, even shaken. Like Büchner with the even-earlier Woyzeck, Dostoevsky thrusts a proto-modernist fist from the deep past into our modern-day world of freedom and relative plenty. Has the human condition fundamentally changed? Signs point to no.
Theatre for a New Audience, in association with Baryshnikov Arts Center, presents Yale Repertory Theatre’s production of Notes from Underground through Nov. 28. For tickets please visit Smarttix or call 212-868-4444. For more perspective, see my colleague Robert Machray’s review of the show’s recent run in La Jolla, CA.