Theater Review | ‘Notes From Underground’ Dostoyevsky’s ‘Sick Man’ Hits YouTube
By BEN BRANTLEY
Published: November 12, 2010
Guess who’s getting ready for his YouTube close-up?
Here is, if you think about it, the perfect marriage of a man and a medium. What other showcase works as well for someone who is both a shut-in and an exhibitionist? And so now a couple of theater artists from the 21st century have put a tiny video camera into the hands of one of the most toxic characters of 19th-century fiction, with the implicit instructions, “Underground Man, broadcast yourself!”
The Yale Repertory Theater’s production of “Notes From Underground,” adapted by Bill Camp and Robert Woodruff, is true to the outline, and often to the letter, of the bombshell of a book that inspired it: Dostoyevsky’s short, relentless novel of self-laceration from 1864. But this production, directed by Mr. Woodruff and starring Mr. Camp, never seems closer to its source’s spirit than in its use of an anachronism: the little camera with which the Underground Man records his sorry confessions.
Consider the show’s very first scene, in which Mr. Camp recites the litany of degradation that begins Dostoyevsky’s novel: “I am a sick man. I am a wicked man. I am an unattractive man.” As Mr. Camp says these words, the projected image of his smiling, snarling face looms large and scary on the back of the stage of the Baryshnikov Arts Center, where “Notes,” presented here by Theater for a New Audience, runs through Nov. 28.
You look at that outsize, contemptuous, phantasmal face, and you see a charismatic specter in control, speaking words that unsettle you. But shift your gaze to stage left, to Mr. Camp in the flesh, hunched over his trinket-sized camera, which sits on a decrepit desk in a derelict room. In three dimensions, in a broader context, Mr. Camp seems small and pathetic. It’s like seeing both faces of the Wizard of Oz at the same time: a gigantic, bodiless head and that insignificant little man behind the curtain.
Video projections are all the rage these days in theater. But rarely have I seen the technology as illuminatingly used as it is in the opening scene here. Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man — a retired civil servant who spends his days paralyzed in a vicious circle of thoughts — is perhaps the greatest reliably unreliable narrator in world fiction.
He so badly wants us, his unseen audience, to believe him as a teller of harsh cosmic truths, and yet he insists on undercutting everything he says, suggesting that it all may be lies. It’s that sense of an uneasily sustained doubleness that Mr. Camp’s increasingly shaky control of the camera gives us. Sometimes, as he walks about in agitation, he forgets that he has the camera in his hand, and we see only the floor of his squalid apartment, which (this being Russia) appears to be covered in snow and, framed by a lens, brings to mind a slush-filled gutter. (The set is by David Zinn.)
Dostoyevsky wrote the first chapter (which is the first third) of “Notes From Underground” as a sort of philosophical template for the fragmented memoir that follows. Mr. Camp and Mr. Woodruff have reduced that chapter to a quick sort of lesson-plan survey, hitting the key points, which means you lose much of the inbred interiority of the Underground Man’s voice. Still, the play’s first, most abstract part feels truest to its origins.
What follows — as the Underground Man re-enacts a painful chapter from his past — is both more conventional and haphazard, though it isn’t lacking in coups de théâtre. If the beginning of the play showed the world according to the Underground Man, everything else suggests a world in which he is out of control. Projections (Peter Nigrini), sound and music (Michaël Attias) and lighting (Mark Barton) meld into a landscape of bureaucratic corridors, razed buildings and faceless, erotically charged bodies (belonging to the former school friends with whom the Underground Man spends a disastrous evening of debauchery).
The effect is more Kafka than Dostoyevsky (or rather Kafka as interpreted by Orson Welles in his movie of “The Trial”). Mr. Woodruff, a longtime practitioner of aggressively avant-garde theater, usually goes for feverish, impressionistic effects, based more on an artist’s ineffable intuition than on a cohesive intelligence. And what we lose as his “Notes” progresses is the eternal, circular inwardness — the sense of a snake devouring its own tail — of Dostoyevsky’s prose.
Let me confess that the Underground Man has been a close personal (and cautionary) friend of mine since I first encountered him as a teenager, and it would be impossible for any performance to match the portrait I have of him in my mind. Looking and acting like a hybrid of Peter Lorre and Peter Ustinov, Mr. Camp is not quite my idea of the Underground Man. He is perhaps too extravagant of gesture and presence for someone who believes he is destined to invisibility.
But Mr. Camp is also one of the bravest, smartest and most physically intense actors in New York. With a voice that curls at the edges in contempt and a face that holds a far-reaching scale of ambivalence in one expression, he commands our attention through what is largely a sustained monologue. And in the scenes that trace his character’s encounter with a prostitute (the excellent Merritt Janson), he combines naturalistic and expressionist techniques to deliver a precise and painful anatomy of one man’s fully willed self-humiliation.
At one point in this tortured relationship, Mr. Camp raises his arms in victory over the woman’s recumbent figure. Then you see the triumph ebb from his face, and you feel his raised arms growing heavier and heavier. I’m not sure Dostoyevsky’s shrinking Underground Man would be quite so gladiatorlike. But as emotional shorthand, this posture taps into the raw, breath-sucking abjectness that makes Dostoyevsky’s novel such an enduringly harrowing read.
Notes From Underground
By Fyodor Dostoyevsky, adapted by Bill Camp and Robert Woodruff, based on the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky; directed by Mr. Woodruff; sets by David Zinn; costumes by Moria Sine Clinton; lighting by Mark Barton; music and sound by Michaël Attias; projections by Peter Nigrini; dramaturgy by Amy Boratko; vocal coaches, Andrew Wade and Walton Wilson; fight director, Rick Sordelet. A Yale Repertory Theater production, presented by Theater for a New Audience, Jeffrey Horowitz, artistic director; Theodore C. Rogers, chairman; Dorothy Ryan, managing director. At theBaryshnikov Arts Center, Jerome Robbins Theater, 450 West 37th Street, Manhattan; (212) 868-4444, smarttix.com. Through Nov. 28. Running time: 1 hour 30minutes.
WITH: Bill Camp (Man), Michaël Attias(Apollon/Musician) and Merritt Janson(Liza/Musician).