Off-Broadway Theater Review: NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND (Jerome Robbins Theater)

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by Alexander Harrington on November 17, 2010

in Theater-New York


Fyodor Dostoevsky is recognized as a psychologist, philosopher, and storyteller. His two masterpieces, Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamozov, explore weighty philosophical questions: in Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov believes himself to be an extraordinary man who is not limited by morality almost fifteen years before Nietzsche put the term übermensch (inadequately translated as “superman”) into print, and in The Brothers Karamozov he wrestles with the question of how a good and just God can exist in a world in which innocents suffer unspeakably.  As a psychologist in Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky gives voice to Raskolnikov’s paranoid and guilt-consumed thoughts, and in The Brothers Karamozov he depicts a number a characters with contradictory psyches, including his namesake Fyodor Karamazov, who compulsively acts like a buffoon, simultaneously feeling inferior and superior to those who are subjected to his displays.  However, more important than their analyses and ideas is the fact that these two novels are rollicking-good crime stories.

In his earlier novella Notes from Underground, we encounter Dostoevsky the philosopher and psychologist, but the storyteller is pushed into the background; consequently, Notes from Underground is fascinating, but not compelling.  Many believe that in this work Dostoevsky introduced existentialist ideas long before the term had been coined.  Like Nietzsche, Dostoevsky attacks rational certainties that had replaced religious beliefs which had previously been undermined by logic and science.  Unlike Nietzsche and many other thinkers labeled existentialists, Dostoevsky, having passed through the crucible of doubt, came to religious belief that is truly faith – it transcends reason.  In Notes from Underground, however, Dostoevsky simply tears down rationalism and secular liberals and leftists who believe that morality can exist without faith in God: he does not offer up his own Christian vision.  By presenting his own self-destructive behavior, the underground man demolishes the idea that, out of self interest, man will act morally.

In his depiction of these self-destructive actions and the obsessive, circular thoughts that give birth to them, we see Dostoevsky the psychologist at work.  Like Fyodor Karamazov, the underground man is consumed by his feelings of inferiority and his compulsion to both assert his superiority over others and to degrade himself.

As much as this fixation on one’s standing relative to others and the compulsion to self-debasement rings psychologically true, and as intellectually meaty the challenge to reason is, the novella becomes tiresome to this reader due to the minimal plot and the relentless monotony of tone of the underground man’s voice.

Obviously this belief is not shared by actor Bill Camp and director Robert Woodruff, whose passion for the work has led them to adapt it to stage, Camp to portray the character in what comes very close to being a one-man show, and Woodruff to stage it.

Before discussing the production, it feels right to give Bill Camp some recognition.  Camp is one of a number of New York actors who work primarily on stage (rather than in film and television) at the city’s major non-profits, at major regional theatres, and occasionally in commercial productions on Broadway.  They specialize in classical roles, and are some of America’s finest actors, but are largely unknown outside the theatre community.  This group includes Camp’s wife Elizabeth Marvel, Michael Cumpsty, Steven Skybell, Robert Stattel, Laurie Kennedy, John Douglas Thompson, and Brian Murray among others.  Camp is an imposing physical actor with a gravelly and resonant voice, who radiates energy and a little bit of danger.

Temporally, Woodruff has placed Camp’s and his adaptation in the present; physically, he has placed Camp, along with actor/musician/composer/sound designer/technician Michaël Attias and actor/musician Merritt Janson, in a room that looks like a dilapidated recording studio (designed by David Zinn), the floor of which is covered in snow, which the audience has seen falling through the ceiling prior to the start of the performance.  What is very apt about this updating is that underground man rants his thoughts at a webcam – there is no question that were he alive today, Dostoevsky’s recluse/exhibitionist/philosopher/buffoon would be blogging.

The webcam transmits an enlarged image of Camp’s face onto the white upstage wall of the set.  Later, we are shown video (by Peter Nigrini) of warren-like corridors, of the lower faces and torsos of the underground man’s former schoolmates, and the full face of a brothel-keeper.

The schoolmates are characters in the slight plot of Notes from Underground.  Camp drops in on one of them and finds him with two others, planning a farewell party for a fourth, to which Camp invites himself.  In these videos, the schoolmates sit extremely close to each other, whisper intimately in each other’s ears, and eventually kiss and slip hands into shirts.  Other than a mention of kissing each other (a common, non-sexual practice among Russian men), there is no indication of sexual relationships among these friends in either the novella or the script.  Since we are seeing this through the underground man’s eyes, perhaps Woodruff is trying to convey that, because of his feeling of exclusion, the underground man sees these men as more intimate than they are, but it is likely that the audience will leave with a less subtle impression that is not intended by Dostoevsky.

After challenging one his acquaintances to a duel, Camp follows the group to a brothel, only to discover they have already departed.   He then sleeps with one of the prostitutes – Liza (Janson) – berates  her with a terrifyingly bleak picture of her future, and then gives her his address, holding out the hope that he will save her.  Come morning, now having no intention of saving her, he sits in his room, hoping she will not come, but is disappointed.  When she shows kindness to him, he rapes her. This goes a step farther than does the novella (at least in Andrew R. MacAndrew’s translation) in which, according to the underground man, she eventually reciprocates the passion of his assault, only to be coldly ignored afterward.

Camp plays the role with an uninhibited manic energy that, if taken literally, could be seen as stark, raving insanity.  While he has his exhibitionistic moments, the underground man is someone devoured by inward obsessions – he does not rave.  However, it is not clear that Camp or Woodruff intend us to take these histrionics as the underground man’s actual outward behavior; they may rather be an expressionistic performance of his inner state.  The latter is certainly true of the pose Camp assumes whenever he tries to hide his pathological social anxiety behind a mask of politeness:  he raises his hands in a gesture that suggests a music hall performer proclaiming “Ta da!,” a ballet port de bras, and a suspect being ordered to freeze by the police; plasters a mile-wide smile across his face; and keeps demurely re-crossing his legs.  At one point he leaps about in what looks like a travesty of Baryshnikov.  It is questionable how well this over-the-top performance serves Dostoevsky, but it is virtuosic, charismatic, inspired lunacy that engages the audiences and goes a long way toward alleviating the novella’s relentlessly monotonous tone.

Janson is powerful as Liza, and Woodruff has given her two harrowing moments.  As Camp harangues her with his vision of the life of a prostitute, she gnaws her own hand till it bleeds (when she comes to the underground man’s apartment, her hand is bandaged).  When he rapes her, they fall behind his desk, and we are left to watch two struggling pairs of feet for what feels like an agonizing eternity.

Robert Woodruff and Bill Camp have taken Dostoevsky’s revolutionary, disturbing, thought-provoking, but less-than-engrossing Notes from Underground and turned it into an impressive, if not quite engrossing, evening of theater.

photos by Joan Marcus

Notes from Underground
Theatre for a New Audience
Barishnikov Arts Center Jerome Robbins Theater
ends on November 28, 2010
for tickets, call 212-868-4444 or visit TFANA

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