It is a rare piece of work that skirts the line between accessible and avant-garde as deftly and heartbreakingly as does “Notes From Underground,” the new play at the Yale Repertory Theatre (adapted from Dostoevsky by Bill Camp and Robert Woodruff). Too often have I walked out of Off-Off-Off Broadway productions thinking, “Now there’s a play too far up its own asshole.” But what is remarkable about “Notes” is how radically it departs from this notion of “art.”
The play, which takes us inside the mind of an ex-civil servant known only as the Man (played by a delightfully vitriolic Bill Camp) as he recounts both rejection by and rejection of a world dominated by impenetrable institutions, is remarkable for its incredible transparency. This is not merely theater of the mind; this is defensive theater, even offensive theater, that forces the audience into understanding.
What’s most striking about “Notes” is the depiction of the “underground” the main character inhabits. The set, brilliantly designed by David Zinn, exudes a calm as can only be achieved after a rage has been exhausted. The stage is divided into a kind of triptych; the central panel is flanked by Michaël Attias (who plays the Man’s servant and is also the sound designer, composer and one of two musicians in the show) on the left, and Merritt Janson (who plays Liza, a kind of postmodern love interest who is also the other musician in the show) on the right. In the middle we are confronted mercilessly with the bare emptiness of the Man’s abode. A door and a covered window adorn the back wall, while the side walls are incomplete, revealing the naked metal rods of the building’s frame. The room is filled with snow that continues to fall softly from above; a desk strewn with empty bottles sits at stage right and a clock perpetually stuck a few minutes before 11:15 stares at the audience from above. The stage seems to grotesquely display both its construction and its deconstruction. Its self-consciousness as reflected perpetually by the broken clock is evident in every moment.
Calling the presentation unorthodox would be an understatement: A live video feed projects much of the Man’s ranting on the back wall. Naturally, therefore, my first inclination was to gear up for two hours of artsy pseudo-intellectual self-congratulation. The true merit of Mr. Camp’s performance, however, is the way he uses the medium to express sincere feeling. Even at his quiet moments he seems ready to burst with sorrow and self-loathing. The light reflected off the snow makes each of his features stand out in full detail; similarly, the sounds he makes are so acutely magnified that we hear his every breath.
The brilliance of director Robert Woodruff is not in showing us a glimpse into the human psyche; rather, he forces us to take a long, hard look at this man as he flounders while trying to work up the confidence to stand up for himself (or at the very least to put some action behind his harsh critique of the hypocritical and ungrateful social bureaucrats he finds himself surrounded by). We see the uncomfortable, paranoid workings of a man marginalized in every sense of the word, alienated from himself as much as he is alienated by society. He is afraid to touch, afraid to rebel. Slowly and excruciatingly he tears himself apart. This is the theater of humiliation.
The production is by no means perfect (the first 20 minutes or so especially could have been pared down significantly), but in its seamless synthesis of performance and technical works, “Notes” sets the bar very high for truly sincere experimental theater.