The Diary of a Madman
Adapted by David Holman, Neil Armfield and Geoffrey Rush
Based on the short story by Nikolai Gogol
Directed by Directed by Neil Armfield
Gogol’s writings are often labeled—especially in recent adaptations like William Kentridge’s The Nose at the Met last year and this exquisite revival of a 1989 staging of The Diary of a Madman by Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre (at BAM through March 12)—farcical ancestors to Kafka’s satires of bureaucratized insanity, but Geoffrey Rush’s wayward functionary performs mental illness better than institutional critique. Catherine Martin’s expressionist set design, full of odd angles stretched toward the audience and sliced up further by lighting designer Mark Shelton, hosts a crash-course in clowning (bright red nose and all), physical theater and stylized psychosis. Rush’s vaudevillian, Pee-wee-esque buffoonery is a kinetic spectacle, all flopping limbs, teetering postures, makeup-enhanced features and pantomimed gestures, the lot topped with a spool of red hair jutting from his brow. This is how live-action Dr. Seuss should look.
Rush’s Poprishchin, a low-level civil servant in a St. Petersburg office, opens Diary on October 3rd in proto-Michael Scott-ian fashion, mocking irritating colleagues and longing for his boss’s daughter, but by the time “Marchtober” comes around he’s traded in his lowly title for royalty and convinced himself that parsing the correspondences of a dog named Fifi will reveal a vast canine conspiracy. Blabbering, sputtering, he follows tangents into anecdotes cribbed inside fantastic stories. His companion on this journey into dementia is a young Finnish maid named Tuovi (valiant sidekick Yael Stone), who tidies his vast attic and brings him soup in exchange for a few rubles and bits of English vocabulary. Every time she leaves the stage, Tuovi intones a short Finnish number, including a weepy rendition of “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” always to Poprishchin’s bewilderment. Turning to the audience, his mouth agape, Rush has us in stitches effortlessly. His mannered, stand-up-like routine punctuates copious laughs in accelerating, shortening scenes with a few moments of hushed, heartfelt lucidity. Before storming from his apartment in a DIY royal frock, he holds his bedpost, tears streaming down his face in a final flicker of clear-mindedness, then marches into all-enveloping delusion.
The final, unsmiling act turns the fool’s playhouse into an actual madhouse. After nearly two hours of indulging a crazy person’s paranoid rants and outrageous beefs, Gogol (and adapter David Holman) locks Poprishchin up, shaves his fiery tufts and beats him skittish. It’s a brutal ending for an endearing character, and one that brings director Neil Armfield’s careening production to an unsettling and not entirely successful impasse. More auspiciously, perhaps, Poprishchin’s final quarantine in his regal fantasy underlines the crazy comic’s underprivileged status, encouraged into delirium and promptly abandoned therein. Diary gratifies our enjoyment of madness, then confronts us with our complicity in the making of a madman.
(photo credit: Stephanie Berger)