Theater review: ‘Notes From Underground’ at La Jolla Playhouse

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Dramatic adaptations of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s work should carry a warning to audiences that the characters and situations they’re about to encounter are likely to be disturbing in the extreme. In fact, it might be wise to tick off the possible reactions (revulsion, anger, frustration, despair) in the manner of those pharmaceutical TV commercials that are required to disclose terrifying side effects.

Dostoevsky’s “Notes From Underground,” the short, splenetic novel that gave the author the courage to tackle his mountainous masterpieces, receives a frighteningly sharp theatricalization at La Jolla Playhouse that is bound to unsettle those who see it. The production, which began at Yale Repertory Theatre last year, isn’t your usual docile page-to-stage re-creation but a provocative reworking that transforms a warped sensibility into a three-dimensional nightmare. Dostoevsky, I venture to say, would have approved heartily of the mesmerizing bleakness. You can count me among the work’s admirers. But beware: Psychological turmoil isn’t just depicted — it’s incited.


Robert Woodruff, the visionary auteur who was the former artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre, prepared this adaptation with his production’s fierce and vanity-free star, Bill Camp. Working from a translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the two men distill the sweat, shame and self-disgust of this tale, narrated by a 40-year-old former clerk who has holed up in squalor with nothing to do but review his miseries and ponder his inertia.

This isn’t the first version I’ve seen in a theater. (I vaguely recollect another “Underground” off-off-Broadway that was produced in the dark, claustrophobic and probably rat-infested cellar of some East Village dump.) What’s interesting is how the writing both invites dramatization and resists it. The antihero whose musings and reminiscences make up the book is a monologist eager to propound his polemical views. But the philosophical rant that forms Part 1 is as challenging to figure out onstage as the memory of the dismal moral failure that constitutes Part 2.

Woodruff’s approach heightens the material’s blunt emotional force, yet doesn’t bother much with its layered intellectual history. Prose narrative is better equipped to deal with anti-utopian considerations; theater excels at envisioning particular human truth. Here the sordid mental and physical condition of a man is presented with hallucinatory starkness.

The stage is covered in snow. St. Petersburg’s harsh weather has been brought indoors in scenic designer David Zinn’s striking conflation of the underground man’s inner and outer reality. An old mattress is thrown on the floor of an apartment that has all the comfort of a flop house. Scattered crates and a sturdy desk comprise the décor.

Camp, dressed in contemporary casual wear (costume designer Moira Siné Clinton evokes today’s Euro-styled urbanity), speaks into a small camera that projects his image onto a large back screen. It’s one of the production’s many shrewd maneuvers, capturing the double reality of a narration that is at once solitary confession and self-conscious performance.

On opposite ends of the stage stand two key collaborators. Michaël Attias, the composer and sound designer, engineers the aural landscape, a textured pastiche (think Nietzschean hip-hop) that’s rendered with a DJ’s discreet brashness. Merritt Janson contributes as both a musician and an actor, leaving her electric keyboard and microphone to portray Liza, the prostitute whose run-in with the underground man turns into a disaster for both of them.

The production has slow patches, but the intensity increases during the recollection of events that marked the protagonist’s abject withdrawal from the world. Imposing himself on scornful former schoolmates at a fancy dinner, the underground man wallows masochistically in humiliation only to take out his bitterness on defenseless Liza, who like all good Dostoevsky women holds out the possibility of male redemption. Their brothel transaction takes place within a cut-out space in the back of the set that’s like an aquarium housing miserable fish. Close-ups of the unhappy post-coital conversation appear on screen, the emptiness as difficult to witness as a car wreck.


Not everyone will be able to stomach what transpires and, equally painful, doesn’t transpire between man and woman (a couple of audience members made noisy premature exits during Friday’s opening night performance). But it’s rare to find an experimental theater piece that’s as deftly acted as it is ingeniously designed (Mark Barton’s lighting and Peter Nigrini’s projections are both topnotch).

The suffering of Janson’s Liza brings to mind a flower trampled by indifferent strangers. The performance helps us comprehend the extent of the protagonist’s alienation, which Camp brilliantly embodies with a paradoxically smug decrepitude. His slightly plummy diction is an apt touch for a character with a rather preening manner of self-loathing.

At a time when the region has quite a number of excellent large-scale theater offerings — “The Glass Menagerie” at the Mark Taper Forum, “Ruined” at the Geffen Playhouse and “Misalliance” at South Coast Repertory — this “Notes From Underground” at La Jolla Playhouse adds dark luster to the Southern California mix.

-- Charles McNulty\charlesmcnulty

“Notes From Underground,” La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 17. $31-$66. (858) 550-1010. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

Photos, from top: Bill Camp. Camp and Merritt Janson. Credit: Joan Marcus