Defibrillator Productions' new show takes place in RED Studio, a loft in Pioneer Square with green windows built into the pale brick walls. It's not a particularly subterranean space, either literally or in atmospheric terms, so it isn't surprising that Joby Emmons' adaptation mostly dispenses with the first section of Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground--the long, vertiginous rant entitled "Underground." Emmons (who also directs) replaces the section with a scattering of quotations and a series of pulsing red lights, and quickly gets on with the bitter St. Petersburg melodrama of the second half.
Emmons scores ingenuity points early on with his visual take on the underground man's conviction that he is loathed by his peers and his superiors alike. The office where he works, dedicated to an absurdist paper-shredding and -crumpling operation, contains three desks and three chairs. Things look fairly standard, as florescent-light-drenched offices go, except for the fact that one of the chairs is tiny. (Oh, and there are also knee-high mountains of paper everywhere.) His coworkers, wearing identical fur hats, shuffle the doll-size chair around the room, but it always ends up back at the desk of the underground man. The chair appears in other scenes as well, following the man into every potentially humiliating scenario and serving as a persistent reminder of the character's psychological degradation.
The ensemble of coworkers, played with relish by Martin Dinn, Daniel Eneberg, and Sam Anderson, create a fantastically oppressive air of joviality. The trio excels at physical clowning, from spontaneous paper fights to would-be standoffs en route to the water cooler. John Osebold's propulsive sound design matches their manic intensity, and the first few scenes of Notes--the dynamic staging and sheer performance energy--comprise the most exciting theater I've seen in some time.
But these robust antics demand equally aggressive anguish from the underground man, and Aaron Blakely isn't quite up to the task. (I'll freely admit, though, that the task might be impossible. It's one thing to read about a man torturing himself in a novel; it's another to watch him writhe and recriminate onstage.) Blakely's anger is so self-contained it appears, on the surface, to be static. In the play's initial scenes, it's too easy to see his character as society does--an irritating distraction--and avoid having to confront his overwhelming self-aggrandizement or share in his ripe paranoia.
So when the subplot concerning the 20-year-old prostitute Liza (Hana Lass) comes around, her credulity is perplexing. Blakely doesn't allow the underground man's case--a brutal emotional thrashing followed by a tender, if grudging, offer of salvation--to build to any sort of emotional climax. Instead, he staggers the beginning of his monologue into blocky, insensitive pronouncements (Emmons' script is partially at fault here), and ends by shouting. It's not at all clear how Liza is persuaded by this brute, but somehow a quiet emotional connection grows between them. The logic of the scene is shaky; it almost works on an instinctual level nonetheless.
Defibrillator's production of Notes from Underground is straightforward about its indifference to Dostoyevsky's dominant themes. Emmons' Notes doesn't pay much heed to the narrator's obsessions over minute shadings in social standing or his self-defeating efforts to scale the corrupt pre-revolutionary Russian hierarchy. There is no discussion of the cost differential between two kinds of beaver-fur collars. There is also little anxiety over Western philosophies and crystal-palace utopianism. Instead, this version emphasizes the alienation of the modern workplace, and a number of scenes are transposed into the office setting. The paper-shredding business shares as many thematic preoccupations with Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" and the film adaptation of Fight Club as with Dostoyevksy's novel. Like these works, Defibrillator's Notes is about being left out of a culture of work; its slightly deranged perspective brings out both the seductive and abhorrent qualities of purposive purposelessness.
Defibrillator's Notes from Underground doesn't do quite what it promises. Its contrapuntal whimsy often overwhelms the main narrative of the man's descent underground. But maybe the underground man just isn't the most compelling part of the story anymore. Maybe we're naturally more suspicious of the jovial consensus around him.