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All the right ‘Notes’

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Williamsburg’s Brick Theater is heating up the winter theater scene with its reprise of its critically acclaimed production of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from Underground.” This five-part dramatic oratorio, which runs through March 22, explores the masochism of the legendary Underground Man and meshes his rancid diatribes with a soundtrack of Russian tavern songs and string quartets. Impeccably directed and adapted by Michael Gardner, this intense, 90-minute show is a must-see for adventurous playgoers.

This was my first visit to the Brick, and I was immediately struck by its unique protocol in escorting ticket holders to their seats. Just before showtime, a staff guide leads the audience from the lobby area, through a narrow passageway, to the actual performance space. It’s enough to make Alice in Wonderland nervous.

I immediately noticed the theater’s darkness and quiet; candlelight flickered over the primitive surroundings. Its promoters had described the show as a “dark, environmental production,” but I was totally unprepared to be ensconced in the “underground.” Not only did I get a taste of “life below the floorboards,” I was pulled — hook, line and sinker — into an atmosphere evoking 19th-century Russia. It’s true that the playing area verges on the claustrophobic, but less is more here.

I tucked into a seat at its edge, not far from the principal actor, who was already onstage. I was pleased to note how well Robert Honeywell suggested Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man. He embodies the part of the 40-year-old former civil servant who has gone “underground” in his native St. Petersburg. With ragged clothes, a beard and palpable contempt etched into his mature features, Honeywell seemed born to play this role.

The set and props are Spartan. The writing instruments are — inch by intelligent inch — the most vital props on stage. They dynamically emphasize the Underground Man’s memoir, which is the central metaphor of the show. To be sure, variegated actions punctuate each scene, but his scribbled notes and personal outpourings are the backbone of the story.

The show opens with the Underground Man sitting in a cross-legged position on the stage. His fountain pen is poised in his hand, as if he’s hesitant to commit his next thought to paper. His facial expression reveals a smoldering intensity, which in a moment erupts into a series of staccato-like statements.

“I am a sick man...I am a wicked man. An unattractive man. I think my liver hurts,” he says, glancing at us out of the corner of his eye, distrustful, full of paranoia. His opening words, in their vitriolic rawness, might well index the rest of the evening’s proceedings. As his monologue continues, we discover that he’s been in this despairing state of mind and malaise for years. And, in spite of the fact that he’s well-read and enjoyed peaks in his civil service career, he’s acutely aware that he’s deteriorated, has had “some debauches” and fallen into a rut.

How to reverse his despicable lot?

He will take a pen in hand. Unpracticed, but with passion and excitement, he will “try to fix something in words.”

The Brick has subtitled its adapted version of Dostoyevsky’s work, “a disgusting play,” which brings one, ironically, to the heart of the piece. After all, Dostoevsky earned much of his cultural distinction by introducing the anti-hero to world literature. And although many still flinch at the author’s disturbing language and imagery, his complex portrait of the Underground Man is a literary tour de force, and a prelude to his other great masterpieces.

Does the Brick’s adaptation of “Notes from Underground” work as a dramatic piece? The show frankly jettisons almost everything we recognize as conventional theater, but surprisingly, the production succeeds with a kind of ragged aplomb. Gardner has written a top-notch version of Dostoyevsky’s tale without becoming overly tethered to the work or its structural form.

No doubt the most innovative aspect to this stage adaptation is that it creates a kind of chorus for Underground Man, comprised of the ensemble. Thus, instead of the nameless protagonist telling us his entire story, four actors (Moira Stone, Alyssa Simon, Mick O’Brien, Heath Kelts) sit in the audience and interrupt his masochistic ramblings at key points. The upshot? The performance develops into a kind of conversational dogfight in which half a dozen arguments and opinions are voiced, and then torn to tatters.

Far and away, the scenes with the “bumped officer” and the “rescued prostitute” proved to be the most riveting moments. (And, I daresay, the most darkly disturbing.) In these pivotal scenes, the production presents its sharpest intellectual bite, combining the talents of the ensemble with the coiled-spring acting of Honeywell’s Underground Man.

I do not believe that anyone could emerge from “Notes From Underground” without being, in some way, transformed. The playgoer who thinks that Dostoyevsky’s classic is impossible to stage should visit the Brick and see first-hand this splendidly vile production, a smash hit at the 1999 New York International Fringe Fest. The creative team and the acting ensemble shot at the right, ironic target in this production and scored a bull’s eye.

Performances of “Notes from Underground,” directed by Michael Gardner, are at 8 pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through March 22 at the Brick Theater (575 Metropolitan Ave. at Union Avenue in Williamsburg). Tickets are $15. For information, call (718) 907-6189 or visit www.bricktheater.com.

Updated 4:01 pm, November 10, 2010
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