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STAGE REVIEW

Emotional journey for all concerned

Bill Camp is in control yet completely free in the role of Underground Man at the Yale Repertory Theatre. Bill Camp is in control yet completely free in the role of Underground Man at the Yale Repertory Theatre. (JOAN MARCUS)
By Louise Kennedy
Globe Staff / March 30, 2009
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NEW HAVEN - Brutal, funny, agonizing, and profound, "Notes From Underground" at the Yale Repertory Theatre possesses a harsh and indelible beauty. It is at once a faithful adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky's strangely modern novel and a brilliantly original and theatrical work of art.

It is, in short, precisely the kind of work that Robert Woodruff, former artistic director of Cambridge's American Repertory Theatre, does at his best. And so the dark joy I felt in experiencing its bleak and bracing world was tempered only by a renewed sense of the loss that our local theater scene suffered when Woodruff left.

"Joy" may sound like a strange word for this particular work, which Woodruff and his frequent collaborator, the actor Bill Camp, adapted from the novel. It certainly wasn't the emotion expressed by assorted audience members who stalked out during Thursday's press opening, and it's not the most likely reaction to Dostoevsky's willfully nasty, aggressively negative Underground Man, a character who practically single-handedly invented the idea of the antihero, decades before Camus got around to it.

And yet joy is what I felt - first as Camp delivered a long, angry, bitingly self-mocking rant into a tiny camera, which then projected his tightly toothy grimaces hugely onto the back wall of the stage, and then later as this claustrophobic interior consciousness expanded to include the nameless Man's memories of a humiliating, cruel incident from his youth. Partly it was the joy of craft, of seeing an actor at once completely in control and completely free.

And Camp's work is enhanced and complemented by his two accomplices onstage: Michael Attias, who composed the appropriately jarring score and plays a small role as the Man's servant in addition to performing the music, and Merritt Janson, who sings and, unforgettably, performs as Liza, the prostitute whom the Man charms, insults, and all but destroys in the play's second half. Janson's work here is almost unbearably raw and intense, yet it retains a delicacy that renders Liza's pain all the sharper. She is a wounded wonder to behold.

But it's not just the performances that make this an invigorating, if challenging, two hours of intermissionless drama. It is the way those performances weave seamlessly into the coherent and complex vision that Woodruff's direction creates, and that his design team - David Zinn for the set, Moria Sine Clinton for costumes, Mark Barton for lights, Attias for sound, and Peter Nigrini for projections - executes with passionate precision.

One hallmark of Woodruff's consistently intelligent and exhilarating work is the way he transforms an empty theater into a living space, brimming with energy and light. You can't point to any one element of his productions - the actors, the set, the lighting, the music - and say, "There, that's what's making it come alive." It's all alive; it's all charged with the emotional and intellectual (and even, I would say, spiritual) power he finds in the work.

To take just one example from "Notes From Underground": When the Man recounts his meeting with Liza, he moves from the incongruously/aptly snow-covered debris of his office-like flat to a room behind it, which we see only through a large, conference-room-style window. There he holds out some money to Liza, and she reaches for it. The room's garish light goes black, and we sit in total darkness for a few moments as the sound of stringed instruments fills the air - not just around the characters, but around all of us.

We see nothing. We see everything. We are in the dark, and we are filled with light.

NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND Play by Bill Camp and Robert Woodruff

Adapted from Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel, in a translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

Directed by: Woodruff. Set, David Zinn. Costumes, Moria Sine Clinton. Lights, Mark Barton. Music and sound, Michael Attias. Projections, Peter Nigrini.

At: Yale Repertory Theatre, New Haven, through April 11. Tickets, $35-$65, 203-432-1234, www.yalerep.org

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