Saturday, May 1, 2021

The Overcoat

I just got back from seeing live indoor theater for the first time in more than a year. Though vaccinations have protected many of us, it's going to be a long time until the arts--and indeed humanity--can recover.

The play I saw was The Russian Arts Theater and Studio's production of The Overcoat, adapted and directed by Aleksey Burago from the short story by Nikolai Gogol. I enjoyed Burago's staging of the Bulgakov novel The Master and Margarita, so I had high hopes for the evening.

Actor Tom Schubert appears onstage as Gogol, joyfully narrating the story of an ill-fated clerk, Akaky Akakievich. While Schubert gives us a feel for the wacky weirdness of the author, we get little sense of the dark, haunted soul who gave us such plays as The Government Inspector and Marriage as well as some of the best short stories ever written in Russian.

Since Schubert mimics the light, airy quality of Gogol's narration, the production relies on Christopher Zach to provide depth to the play through his portrayal of Akaky Akakievich. The poor old clerk is ridiculous, but genuinely sympathetic when his overcoat wears out beyond repair and he is forced to spend all his savings on a new one. After his coat is stolen by a robber (one of numerous parts played by Roman Freud), Akaky Akakievich slowly declines into sickness and despair.

That decline is not sped up in this production, no matter how desirable it might be for dramatic purposes. Instead, Burago's adaptation expands on Gogol's tale, even introducing the titular olfactory organ in the author's "The Nose" which makes an appearance in the person of Di Zhu, a talented actor and pianist who supplies several small roles as well as providing live music. Burago mixes live and recorded music, which is not generally to my taste, but the use of a motif from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony is a highlight of the show.

The sold-out production has to keep the audience socially distanced, and masks are required at all times for audience members, though thankfully not for actors. "It's the new normal," one usher said to me, as patrons were allowed up the stairs one at a time. In spite of these restrictions, we were happy to be able to be there.

I noticed several people taking photos during the show, perhaps an indication that after more than a year of isolation, no one is sure what the basic rules of civility are anymore. As spring arrives, signs of life are returning, but they are modest, indeed.