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Let’s Talk: ‘Notes From Underground’

Above: Actor Bill Camp in the La Jolla Playhouse's production of "Notes from Underground."

I've noticed a lot of online chatter about the La Jolla Playhouse's production of "Notes From Underground," a drama based on the 19th century novel by Russian great Fyodor Dostoevsky.

The general consensus seems to be that it's a very disturbing, haunting play, but extremely well done.

Dana Springs, from the Commission for Arts and Culture wrote on her Facebook wall: "IMHO (in my humble opinion), seeing "Notes from Underground" at La Jolla Playhouse was like being served a plate of steamed veg for dinner. I may not have enjoyed it, but I am appreciative that LJP (La Jolla Playhouse) cares about my theatrical nutrition and doesn't just dish out pander-candy."

Drew Snyder, a UCSD grad student and founder of the gallery/blog Andrews Arts, sent me his thoughts on "Notes" in an email: "Simply calling this production of 'Notes from Underground' a 'play' doesn’t quite get at it; I’d lean more towards performance art. The mastery with which it blends theater, visual art, and music elevates it to a level of poetry I have seldom seen...By the end, you aren’t sure who to be more disgusted with: the main character for his frantic displays of the vile and grotesque, or yourself for empathizing with him. A chillingly beautiful piece of art that I will not soon forget."

The La Jolla Playhouse production of

Above: The La Jolla Playhouse production of "Notes from Underground" closes on October 17th.

There's also a lot of love out there in social media - and from the critics - for actor Bill Camp's lead performance.

Performance Magazine editor Maya Kroth tweeted last week: "If ever an actor deserved a standing O (ovation) that will never come due to subject matter, it's Bill Camp in @ljplayhouse's Notes from Underground."

I really enjoyed Jeff Smith's review over at The Reader. He says the drama "offers some of the year’s most stark, piercing drama, and it couldn’t care less about your love. Directed by Robert Woodruff, the piece is intellectually, physically, and psychologically brutal. It is also ­unforgettable."

Charles McNulty, theater critic for the LA Times, is also a fan: "['Notes'] isn’t your usual docile page-to-stage re-creation but a provocative reworking that transforms a warped sensibility into a three-dimensional nightmare. Dostoevsky, I venture to say, would have approved heartily of the mesmerizing bleakness. You can count me among the work’s admirers. But beware: Psychological turmoil isn’t just depicted — it’s incited."

This Facebook update was pretty funny and comes from Chicano playwright, activist and USC theater prof Luis Alfaro, who wrote: "My favorite loud senior audience remark today at the matinee of Dostoevsky's "Notes From The Underground" at the La Jolla Playhouse before the actor had even started talking -- 'It's already depressing...'"

Alfaro's update sparked a number of interesting comments about the production (Alfaro seemed to like it) and the role of challenging theater in our culture.

Full disclosure: events have conspired to keep me from seeing "Notes" yet - though I plan to go this coming Saturday. I suspect a lot of my readers are ahead of me, so start your conversation about the play here on Culture Lust.

What did you think of the play? How do you think the intense subject matter is handled? Do you think it's important to have theater that challenges and discomforts or do you think theater should be about pure entertainment? How does "Notes" fit into the San Diego theater scene? Let's talk...

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Avatar for user 'crybabysoda'

crybabysoda | October 11, 2010 at 12:41 p.m. ― 6 years, 5 months ago

Beloved girlfriend took me to see this. Things were grim from the get go. Three Russian couples sat in front of us - I considered this promising, a chance to sop up some first hand Russian brooding. Russian Man #1 asleep at 15 min mark, his dead souled companions and he left at 30 minutes. Late middle age Amer. couple nearby were brutalized at about 1hr 15 minutes and made stunned exit...We stuck it out, about two hours of self loathing
and bile. The novella is essentially a philosophic/splenetic rant - nuances of which are best appreciated at a reader's speed. The effect of seeing this stage version is something like a waterboarding. Not at all enjoyable and probably the best play I've seen in two years.

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Avatar for user 'Angela Carone'

Angela Carone | October 11, 2010 at 5:11 p.m. ― 6 years, 5 months ago

@crybabysoda: thanks for the comment and sharing your observations of how the audience reacted.

Very funny: "Three Russian couples sat in front of us - I considered this promising, a chance to sop up some first hand Russian brooding."

I wish someone would comment that didn't like it (or didn't think it was worth the traumatic viewing), so we could hear a range of opinions.

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Avatar for user 'Angela Carone'

Angela Carone | October 18, 2010 at 12:37 p.m. ― 6 years, 5 months ago

I saw Notes from Underground on Saturday night and don't have much to add on the above conversation, where many insightful points are already made.

I did find the self-loathing and misanthropy as a kind of wall of sound difficult to endure. The beginning is dense with moral nihilism that we say play out in tangible ways throughout the rest of the play.

As everyone said, Bill Camp's performance is astounding. He'd already done a matinee earlier in the day on Saturday and I can't imagine how he does it.

One of the things that really worked for me was Woodruff's direction and the set design. The use of video/stills and sound design was really ingenious - I'm still not sure how he managed to convey a complete mood or experience with snippets of sound and images, but I continue to wonder at it. One thing I can say for sure, I'm not willing to sit through it again to figure out how he did it. Too excruciating.

Has anybody seen it in the last few weeks and want to chime in?

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Avatar for user 'crybabysoda'

crybabysoda | October 20, 2010 at 8:36 a.m. ― 6 years, 5 months ago

Angela, maybe we should do this over coffee...set design and projection stuff was great - i think i really know what it means to gnash ones teeth....Im not sure the interaction w musicians as foils to Underground man worked for me- maybe a way of breaking up the endless rant?

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