Larry Cedar converted Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from the Underground” from a dense 48,000-word novel to a 15,000-word one-man show.
“It’s like they always say that when a sculptor has a big block of stone and he wants to make a sculpture of a beautiful woman, he just cuts away everything that isn’t the woman,” Cedar said.
Cedar, a UCLA alumnus, stars in his one-man show “Notes from the Underground,” an adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s existentialist novel written in 1864. To reconstruct the novel for an onstage format, Cedar said he chose to include the most dramatic parts he felt were most suited to the stage. “Notes from the Underground” showed at The Sherry Theater in North Hollywood this fall, and will close with its final show Thursday.
Cedar said adapting a novel to the stage is a process of careful elimination. He read the novel multiple times to carve away at the story and adapt it for the theater.
“You’re taking things out hoping that what’s left still tells the story,” he said.
“Notes from the Underground” is an early existentialist novel comprised of letters written by a former civil servant in 1860s St. Petersburg, Russia, who came out of decades of isolation. The notes describe the civil servant’s perceptions of the meaninglessness of his existence, the alienation he feels from society and the pitfalls of human nature. Cedar said he kept the show engaging by making the heavy theoretical or philosophical parts of the novel more accessible to audience members.
Cedar spent nine months adapting the novel for the stage after beginning work on the adaptation in February. Pamela Cedar, Larry Cedar’s wife and the director of the show, helped develop the onstage performance of his script.
The UCLA alumna said she informally helped to produce her husband’s last show, “ORWELLIAN,” based on the works of George Orwell, so she already had experience working with dense material. She said the challenge of improving “Notes from the Underground” was deeply rewarding because she loves Dostoyevsky.
“Being that I was an English major and I’ve always loved literature, getting this close to Dostoyevsky is a pure joy, because he is so tough,” she said. “In this particular piece, finding a way to make the philosophical part entertaining was the biggest challenge.”
Alex Smolowe, the videographer for “Notes from the Underground,” said he is a big fan of Dostoyevsky, but was initially dubious that such a serious novel could be successful onstage. However, Larry Cedar’s acting ability helped make the show engaging, despite its heavy material, Smolowe said. Cedar’s dramatic acting skills add excitement to what would otherwise be a series of serious monologues, he added.
“(‘Notes from the Underground’) is the least obvious choice for a stage production, and (Cedar is able to) turn it into something that gets the point across,” Smolowe said. “The feeling is still there from the book, but it’s entertaining.”
Though Cedar has adapted complex novels to the stage, he said Dostoyevsky was a particularly difficult challenge. The philosophical insights in “Notes from the Underground” explore the human condition in a real and passionate way, which Cedar said makes Dostoyevsky one of his favorite authors.
“Notes from the Underground is most suited to stage adaptation because it’s one man telling his story,” Cedar said. “We were building it from scratch, trying to find ways to make different scenes work.”