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Let’s Talk: ‘Notes From Underground’

Actor Bill Camp in the La Jolla Playhouse's production of

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."

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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