Saturday, November 13, 2010

Notes From Onstage

Earlier this year I conceived of and aborted the idea of a contemporary, theatrical update of Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground. What ultimately doomed the concept--along with fatigue and disgust--was the problem of the "Notes" themselves. How does one translate and recontextualize the Underground Man's first-person narrative to an audience-oriented medium like the stage?

Like this.

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.

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