Artifice and Awareness

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theatre for KCRW.

It's not everyday you hear someone say "Get in your car. Drive to La Jolla and see some Dostoyevsky!” Today is your lucky day.

Director Robert Woodruff, actor Bill Camp and a gifted team of designers have brought Notes from the Underground to life. It's based on a novel written in 1864 - and without modernizing it, they've found a modern context and setting that makes it all too relevant.

For those of you who haven't cracked Dostoyevsky since that "Existentialism and You” seminar in college, the "Notes from the Underground” are the imaginary, frantic scribblings of a retired civil servant.

A quick caveat: this is not a production for the faint of heart. As the lovely patron sitting in front of me said, "My god, it hasn't even started and it's depressing already,” and she's right.

As you walk into the theater, you're confronted with a dilapidated, ghost town of an office building. It's all there, the hideous white plastic paneling. The dry erase board. The hanging remnants of an acoustic tile ceiling revealing those hideous metal ribs. The skeletal white fluorescent lights sucking the life out of the room. And it's...snowing. Graceful white snow is gently falling from the ceiling and has coated the entire office.

On this bleak stage, Bill Camp sits at a desk and delivers the opening treatise into a webcam that's projected larger than life on the wall of the theater behind him. It's a cunning gesture. Suddenly we're in an intimate yet remote iChat with our narrator. He's there right in front of us delivering this lonely manifesto to his camera and but instead we're drawn to watching the projection on the wall. And you think, "Oh, I get it, these crazy rantings are happening in chat rooms all over now.” But here's where director Robert Woodruff stays a step ahead of us. Camp stands up from the desk and walks to the back of the stage where the light of the projector becomes a self-conscious spotlight.

Actor Bill Camp gives a truly generous and grotesque performance. He embodies the central theme of Notes from The Underground - humiliation. He allows us to see him in his darkest and most vulnerable moments both as tormentor and tormented. It's emotionally haunting and technically stunning.

And this is the joy of the production, watching the work of a group of artists fully in command of the theatrical space. There are so many clever moments using lights, sound cues, laptops, projection. But led by director Robert Woodruff, they're aware of the artifice they employ in making their theater and use that awareness to make it that much more powerful.

Notes from the Underground plays at La Jolla Playhouse through October 17.

If you're not up for the drive to San Diego, here's a suggestion in our backyard: Free tickets! As part of a national free night of theater, LA Stage Alliance is giving away tickets to over 100 performances at 35 different theaters throughout LA. Sign up by tomorrow, October 6, at

For info about "Notes” and FreeNightLA, text the word "curtain” to 69866.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theatre for KCRW.

Banner image: Bill Camp in La Jolla Playhouse's production of Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground. Photo: Joan Marcus