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Connecticut Theater

"Notes from Underground"
Yale Repertory Theatre, New Haven

Swimming in self-hatred, despair and hysteria, Dostoevsky’s Underground Man makes his appearance at Yale Rep. Actor Bill Camp and director Robert Woodruff have joined forces to create their own version of  “Notes from  Underground.”

Based on a translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Camp and Woodruff have converted the Dostoevsky piece (often seen as the world’s first existential novel) into dramatic form.

“Notes,” as offered to the Rep audiences, manages to be devastating and tedious at the same time. How can that be? For starters, the two-hour show is essentially one long monologue by actor Camp—a non-stop harangue. Absorbing though the actor’s performance is, the sound of his voice mumbling on ad nauseum severely tries the listener. Like any good 19th century Russian novel, the material delves into the tortures of the soul, examining each emotion repetitively and at length. It sets up a pace appropriate to “The Brothers Karamazov” or “The Idiot”--not easy for modern listeners.

Yet there is a story line. The Underground Man was once a government clerk, but having quit his job, now leads a borderline existence. He gets drunk, brawls, borrows money from friends, picks up prostitutes. Initially, in one such encounter with a young woman, he shows tenderness and concern, but when she turns to him for warmth, he rapes her.

“Notes” has a three-member cast, but Camp does the heavy lifting. He runs a gamut of negative emotions, which range from awkwardness and silly attempts at elegance, to bursts of frustration and rage. It is a memorable performance, one of a kind. Assisting him on stage are Merritt Janson and Michael Attias, both of whom double as musicians and actors. Attias makes a further important contribution as sound designer and composer.

Janson is remarkable in her own way, creating a Liza who is understated, oppressed, yet haunting. With few spoken lines, Janson registers emotions with her ever-changing facial expressions.

The production itself gets considerable help from Woodruff’s unusual staging. Live television (courtesy of projection designer Peter Nigrini) looms over the stage, with actors seen both directly and on the wide screen. Further good work from set designer David Zinn and lighting designer Mark Barton adds to the group effort.

If experimentation is Yale Rep’s primary mission, then “Notes from Underground can be considered a success. In all, the production comes off as unusual and challenging.

-- Irene Backalenick
Mar. 28, 2009

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