When I read a brief overview in the LA Weekly about Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground at Zombie Joe’s playhouse, I wanted to see it on the last evening. And as I sat there in silence with the lights off and a Joy Division drum beat came on to Atmosphere, my entire body went through a chilling metamorphosis of a cathartic nature. An actor, T.J. Alvarado sang the lyrics in karaoke style, while Ian Curtis’ lyrics riveted in the background. The underground man sitting beneath as we imagined his contradictory thoughts and the state of nature. Then the opening line, “I am a sick man…I am an angry man, I am an unattractive man,” as he rambled on about his disillusionment, and at once I remembered why that had always been my favorite book. I thought it appropriate that the director would incorporate that existentialist song into the opening scene, and it was after the play when I met the director, Josh T. Ryan, and he talked about growing up in the San Fernando Valley in the 80’s and listening to newwave and darkwave music, being an outsider, being weird, and not fitting in, that it was solidified.
More music followed, Pink Floyd’s Hey You, as T.J. strummed his guitar and sang the tortured isolation of the underground man and his longing to be loved, understood, and a yearning for hope. I used to own that record, and it brought back deep memories of sitting in my darkened and cold bedroom listening repeatedly in a psychedelic state and longing for something similar. Afterwards, the underground man meets up with old friends, which he actually hates, and provokes an argument in order to attack the status-quo of society that they represent. He then meets a beautiful prostitute who performs a highly erotic striptease to Modern Romance from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and ends with the Secret Machines’ ‘Nowhere Again.’ There is no solution worked out at the end of the play, like the novel, because when dealing with the existentialist question, the only result is to address the absurd and meaningless nature of being.
I talked to T.J. Alvarado, who is originally from Santa Barbara and graduated with a B.A. in theatre from Cal Lutheran University, to dig deeper into his performance, the musical arrangement, and its reflective character. He read the novel after he was cast but he didn’t think it was as humorous as the crowd received it. As the underground man conveys his manic depression, and as T.J. describes it, “This poor human whose wrapped up in his own insanity,” it views more like a satirical version and doesn’t necessarily agree that it was what Dostoevsky intended. He felt the Atmosphere song was very appropriate because in his opinion nobody understood what was going on in Ian Curtis’ head, like the underground man, and when he sings about walking in silence and being introverted, without having a connection or human interaction, it’s a polarized thought because he doesn’t want them to walk away or disappear into the shadows. And like most of us out here in the world who are wrapped up in our own conflicts and turmoil, we too long for understanding of the human condition.