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The Russian writer Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) is considered to be a
key figure in the development of realism in Russian literature, his realism often leavened
with a pronounced satirical twist. The central character of his short story, The
Overcoat, Akaky Akakyevich, is, indeed, a most ordinary man, a low-ranking clerk in a
deliberately unspecified bureaucracy, the target of mockery by his coworkers, a man living
in poverty whose sole distinction is his complete dedication to copying documents.
When his old overcoat is beyond repair, Akaky Akakyevich struggles to find the money to have a new one made. The new coat becomes a source of pride, bringing him new self-respect. But then the coat is stolen and, after his appeal to "an important personage" is rebuffed, Akaky Akakyevich becomes ill from exposure to the cold and dies. His ghost is said to steal coats off the backs of people on the streets of Petersburg, searching for the garment that so briefly brought a ray of light into a gray life.
The CanStage production, based on the Gogol story, is conceived entirely in mime and movement, presented without any dialogue, accompanied by musical selections from the works of another Petersburg artist, composer Dmitri Shostakovich. The essential texture of the theater piece is of a silent film played out on stage. On the positive side, Can Stage's version is seamlessly executed by a talented cast in a setting of high production values--handsome settings by Ken MacDonald strikingly lit by Alan Brodie, with stylish costuming by Nancy Bryant.
The script follows the basic outline of the Gogol story, though it substitutes an alternate ending which runs contrary to logic and to the point of the story and misses the poignancy of the image of the coat-stealing ghost. In following the story, the production blows up the most ordinary details to inflated levels which tend to be repetitious and out of proportion to the brilliantly spare ironies of the Gogol text. Two huge pens, like fugitive Claes Oldenburg sculptures, are lowered from the flies in the first office scene, evoking nothing less than a "duh" reaction--could the visual point have been more obvious?
Similarly, in the story, the poor drunken tailor who makes Akaky's coat ("who lived somewhere on the fourth floor, up a back stairs") is morphed onstage into a full-fledged haute couture atelier, with a crowd of tailors and a swarm of sewing machines. And, in case you missed the point, a blown up piece of machine is placed to one side, the cousin of the overgrown pens.
A good deal of sexuality is added to the stage production, an element barely hinted at in the story. It seems more intended to add some theatrical punch than any purposeful enhancement of the meaning of the story. The omnipresent sense of grinding poverty in Gogol is barely hinted at here. Gogol's supreme ability to create a sense of place with a breathtaking economy of words made St. Petersburg itself a character in the story. The stage production is utterly vague about both place and time, presumably seeking some sense of the universal, instead uprooting the events into an undefined blandness.
The Shostakovich music is such a pleasure to the ear that it goes a long way toward helping to sustain the evening. But the "movement," as the directors are careful to label it, while frequently frenetic and gracefully choreographed is not dance; it doesn't have the art that serious classical or contemporary dance would bring to the picture. Indeed, the nature of the production is such that it makes a dance-lover wish that it had been done as a dance piece--that might have lifted the show into a place of art, rather than the thin piece of skillfully wrought spectacle that it is, an overblown interpretation of a brilliant gem that, as presented here, is merely a sparkly rhinestone, substituting glitz for substance.