Monday, February 21, 2011

Gogol Dancing


Geoffrey Rush in The Diary of a Madman (photo by Heidrun Lohr)
The Diary of a Madman
Adapted by David Holman with Neil Armfield and Geoffrey Rush

Based on a story by Nikolai Gogol
Directed by Neil Armfield
Starring Geoffrey Rush, Yael Stone

BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn
February 11-March 12, 2011

Geoffrey Rush’s performance in The Diary of a Madman is certainly a tour de force. Throughout this adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s classic comic story of Poprishchin, a minor St. Petersburg bureaucrat whose loosening grip on sanity is seen through his increasingly embittered and out-of-touch diary entries, the actor rushes about the stage with an array of mutterings, stutterings, yellings, whisperings, and the biggest panoply of stage tricks this side of David Copperfield.

With such an arsenal of hamminess at his disposal, Rush charms the worshiping audience (“an Oscar winner in our midst!” you can almost hear the multitudes saying in awe) in what must be a physically and mentally fatiguing performance, even for an actor whose stock in trade is lack of restraint. His 2009 Tony-winning turn in Ionesco’s Exit the King was equally over-the-top, as was his Oscar-winning showboating in 1996’s Shine. (At least the current The King’s Speech shows a more restrained side of Rush.)

Still, there’s a place for expert mugging in the theater, and Rush is also an accomplished actor, so his exaggerated mannerisms, vocal inflections and facial intonations don’t detract as much as if there was nothing to back them up. Rush is probably having more fun than the audience, whether reacting indignantly to letters he reads from talking dogs, lambasting his landlady’s Finnish servant, Tuovi, with repeated cries of “foreign idiot,” or, when madness finally overcomes him and he calls himself the ruler of Spain, being surprised and confused over mistreatment at the hands of what he calls the Inquisition.

Gogol’s story, written as diary entries, doesn’t readily lend itself to stage adaptation, as the many blackouts and scenes tailing off attest: a comic rhythm is nearly established, then a scene ends and it’s lost. To compensate, Rush and his co-adaptors, David Holman and director Neil Armfield, show the flighty Tuovi (a gleeful Yael Stone, who also plays other minor parts) trying to learn Russian, an excuse for repeated puns on language, such as “finish/Finnish“ or “knows/nose.” These wear out their welcome quickly, as does the give-and-take between Rush and two stage musicians, who punctuate his diary flourishes with clarinet, violin and percussion sounds that also tip their hat to Russian music, mainly Mussorgsky.

Catherine Martin’s brashly colorful sets, Tess Schofield’s garishly tattered costumes and Mark Shelton’s weirdly effective lighting give Armfield’s brisk production a visual strangeness reminiscent of a Tim Burton film, as if we have fallen through the looking glass into a bizarre alternate universe. Still, despite all that talent onstage, Gogol’s puncturing satire is better read than seen.

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