Notes From Underground
The Man, nihilistic and filled with rage, is profoundly negative. Camp, barrel-chested and thick through the waist, despises other individuals and himself, too. He appears on a bright/white stage and it has been snowing onto the Man's belongings. David Zinn's open interior set allows for video imagery at the outset of Camp's face as he begins his rant. The house lights are on for the first quarter of the performance, then off, then on again for the final quarter. If the tormented Man cannot escape his ultimately dreary fate and, hence, must labor through day-to-day, the audience is similarly confined. It's all too dismal.
The Man is audacious and haughty, self-critical, and scornful of virtually all others. Failure is inevitable for this unlikable former civil servant. He sees himself as an insect or maggot but he is more an existential, alienated human for whom life hasn't any value.
Notes From Underground has a contemporary, if altogether depressing feel to it. Camp begins the proceedings as he sits in front of his laptop, amid the snow on his table, reading. "I am a sick man. I am a wicked man. An unattractive man. I think my liver hurts." His facial contortions, enlarged through video, appear on the rear wall behind him. And so it goes, for two hours, without intermission. On one level, it is a torment to watch. The redemption, however, rests within the depth and scope of the production; and through bravura acting by Bill Camp.
As the actor worked with Woodruff on the adaptation, he said he "wanted to free my mouth." No one could possibly take on this Man without fully stepping outside of his own real-world existence. During the second portion of the performance, the Man is cruel and heartless as he interacts with Liza (Janson), a young prostitute. Again, this is brutal to witness, especially since she is kind. There isn't any comfort zone to this play. The Man is: bizarre, isolated, and self-loathing.
Dostoevsky chose to present an individual who was constantly at odds if not at war with himself. Hope is not in the equation. Destruction and death await all of us, so why even contemplate happiness? There is no possibility of escape. Why care?
Camp's performance is staggering. Try as one might, it's difficult not to look directly at him. He transforms himself into the Man. Camp gets to the source of the character instantly. For a long while, he is a solo event. Sure, he has musicians on either side of himseparated by panels. But it's all Bill Camp. Liza eventually appears and, for a time, shares the focus.
Notes From Underground is probably unlike anything many theatergoers have previously attended. Yes, it is philosophical, but the downward spiral leads only to darkness. The Man is perpetually conflicted. The discipline that Camp summons is stunning as he both embodies and controls The Man. Camp acts, at once, externally and internally. His concentration, expression, and stamina are enviable. Woodruff directs with full knowledge and understanding of the material.
Notes From Underground continues at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven through April 11th. For ticket information visit www.yalerep.org or call (203) 432-1234.
- Fred Sokol