Sunday, January 13, 2013

Notes From Underground (review)

credit: Josh T. Ryan
Spoilers ahoy!

With a new year comes the first production from Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group. In this case, the return of a one act play from the company's repertoire--Notes From Underground, based on the novella by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

For those who don't know, Dostoyevsky made himself a pioneer of existentialism through a life of great tension and fierce self-contemplation. Like his hero--or at least narrator--he proved himself a man obsessed with finding meaning. In many ways daunted by the same. He ached for some kind of purpose, for a pure identity, or at least some sense of reality amid a society that to his eyes came across as totally fake. Dostoyevsky ultimately found a kind of answer in faith. Not so the narrator, usually known as The Underground Man but in this case given the name Alex.

Alex (Michael Blomgren) lives alone in squalor, having inherited enough to do nothing. What he does instead of work or much of
credit: Josh T. Ryan
anything else is write down thoughts from his whirling mind. He insists upon putting all his actions or inaction, real as well as imagined, to Spite. But of all the lies he tells, this turns out to be one of the few he never admits. Because of ignorance. Alex never realizes that lie. He puts his dissatisfaction, his longing for oh so much, down to flaws in himself. Even intelligence he sees as a burden, for it prevents happiness, makes accomplishment impossible, taints every sensation. No boasting here, not even when bragging. For he finds in life nothing worthwhile. Or so he says.

This kind of thing makes for difficult reading, and extremely difficult performing. Blomgren solves that conundrum with a blend of fearlessness and a comic timing. It helps he manages to remain in character with such power, and retains that quality all good actors need--interest. One can hardly take one's eyes off of the man. Which allows us in turn to see Alex as a mystery, a puzzle, an enigma. All those smug pronouncements alongside what amounts to whimpering could, one thinks almost should, repulse. Instead, they intrigue. Despite what he says, here is a man who little knows himself.

Eventually, we enter into a flashback, a bittersweet memory that perhaps explains this torrent of words, this tsunami of feelings. When he arranged to meet with some acquaintances--boorish, vulgar people--he tries to
credit: Josh T. Ryan
maintain some shred of dignity as they mock him. Surprisingly, he does not badly at all for the most part. He can pretend not to care rather well. He offers details he must know will evoke their hilarious scorn. While refusing to play their games, he nevertheless has no better game with which to counter them. One sees all too clearly what kind of world Alex calls home. Shallow. Crude. A loud place, with garish colors and nothing of equal weight to counter either one. A lonely world with grunts and shrieks instead of words, hungers instead of hopes. In short, a garden of weeds where the soul can find...nothing.

Julie Bermel along with Lief La Duke and Chelsea Rose (see the photo above and to the right) all magnificently convey these creatures who remain recognizably human. The former is new to me but I've seen the other two in good performances before now at ZJU.

But then, Alex meets someone. Liza (Jenna Jacobson). A prostitute. Young and pretty. She likes him well enough. But what follows in the silence after physical intimacy is Alex reaching out and achieving, by accident really, emotional truth. He sees her life only too clearly, what is ahead--the disease, the desperation, the pain yet to be. In telling her what she might yet have instead we get a glimpse as to what this earlier, fresher but still despairing Alex could still articulate--a desire for love, for some kind of meaning, for real pleasure and
credit: Josh T. Ryan
happiness rather than any mere satiation. He touches her heart.

And it proves not enough. Not for him. Not for now, although the ending giving the tiniest drop of hope he might yet find a way out. Or not. In truth we cannot know. Like the most effective art, these Notes From Underground (Hades?) ask questions but only answer a few. One is reminded of Orpheus and Eurydice, but with the genders reversed. As the story reaches a stopping point, and we leave the theatre, we ponder how this wretched man remains what we ourselves cannot help but be...alone, uncertain, in need.

The fine ensemble (and by "fine" I mean in the same sense as fine wine) rounds out with T.J. Alvarado who plays Apollo, the servant of Alex. But he does more than that, serving as a Greek Chorus through his silence, at least for the most part. Telling more rather gives too much away, so let me leave it at that.

Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre presents Notes From Underground Fridays at 8:30pm January 11 through March 1, 2013 (but no performance Valentine's Day weekend February 15). 4850 Lankershim Avenue, North Hollywood CA 91601. Reservations (818) 202-4102.