Akakiy Akakievitch Bashmatchkin is an empty soul, an obscure accountant in an anonymous government office, stripped of feelings by the crushing drudgery of simply existing. Head stuffed with pointless numbers, thoughts drained of substance, Bashmatchkin drifts through life, harassed by co-workers, stifled and alone, a cipher in the impenetrable bureaucratic equation that is St. Petersburg. One day, with the first winds of winter slicing through his shabby overcoat, an ancient rag that his neighbor Petrovich, the tailor, insists can no longer be patched, Akakiy Akakievitch is persuaded to order a new one. Finally, after much suffering and deprivation to secure the necessary funds, the custom-made replacement arrives, silk-lined, fur-collared, so grand even the formerly oblivious Batchmatchkin is in awe. Suddenly, respectability and status are his until one night, stumbling home drunk after a party, he is robbed, the precious overcoat savagely snatched from his back. Dismissed by the police as a crime too trivial to investigate, shunned by a patronizing petty civic functionary as a person of no consequence, Akakiy Akakievitch, weakened by pneumonia, disintegrates into madness.
The Overcoat, a feverish tragicomic piece of masterful music theatre from co-producers Tapestry Opera, Canadian Stage and Vancouver Opera currently playing at Toronto’s Bluma Appel Theatre, is every bit as startling as its classic literary antecedent. Loosely adapted from Nikolai Gogol’s wickedly satirical short story by librettist/director Morris Panych with music by James Rolfe, this smart, quick-witted iteration utterly enthralls.
Gogol’s world, a bubbling mid-19th century cauldron of absurdist Russian manners, is fueled by an uneasy sense of the manic and the grotesque. In The Nose, a restless proboscis separates from a minor official’s face, refusing to reattach itself after acquiring higher social rank than its former owner. In The Overcoat, a patently animate garment embodies heady life-giving properties, revitalizing its wearer. And cruelly revokes them once stolen, a fact made eerily clear in Gogol’s original setting. Akakiy Akakievitch — the hero’s name a Slavic play on the word kaka, excrement — dies and becomes a vengeful, coat-stealing ghost, prowling the nocturnal streets of St. Petersburg for victims. Panych’s moody denouement, an altogether new notion, Akakiy’s entombment in an asylum, greatly intensifies the moral darkness. The pathos is agonizing.
The air of desperation that infuses Gogol’s uniquely allegorical style, part symbolism, part feigned anecdotal reality, is mirrored to stark graphic effect on stage by The Overcoat’s overarching production values. Costume designer Nancy Bryant’s pale spectral, hollow-eyed make-up and transposed, shabby 40s fashion; lighting designer Alan Brodie’s hard, razor-sharp spots cutting through the gloom — production elements speak to a tense, expressionist vision of story. Gogol meets film noir.
But all is not desolation and shadows. This Overcoat is reversible. The spirit of Charlie Chaplin is very much present, too, actively embodied in an unbroken flow of madcap mime and gesture. Endlessly energetic, Cirque du Soleil clowns Colin Heath and Courtenay Stevens scamper in and out, skirmishing with an endless assortment of furniture and props. A band of harried, commuters trundles across Ken MacDonald’s striking structuralist set clutching a disembodied grab bar overhead. Akakiy scoops his footloose coat into his arms in a deep passionate embrace. Action, irrepressible and hyper-animated, is as lively as it is inventive. The unspoken subtext of the piece, the loss of meaning in a frenzied, dehumanized world, is made physically palpable. Movement director Wendy Gorling does eloquent work, giving voice where no voice is heard.
Music pours from every pocket of The Overcoat. Composer James Rolfe’s tirelessly progressive score, forever engaging, crisply syncopated, is irresistible. Partnered with Panych’s breathless rush of text, orchestral themes and melodies — the latter emerging more commonly as through-composed recits than number arias — combine to create a carnival-like panorama of harmony and tone. A flawless 12-piece pit ensemble perceptively led by conductor Leslie Dala paints vivid scenic portraits, singer actors brushing on added layers of bright, primary vocal colour.
Baritone Geoffrey Sirett, familiar to Toronto audiences from Against the Grain Theatre’s landmark dance Messiah and the TSO’s The Seven Deadly Sins, wears the role of The Overcoat’s hapless hero with great style and poise. Akakiy Akakievitch is a challenging part, physically demanding, vocally intense. Sirett navigates the show’s tricky labyrinth of emotion with supreme control and passion, his voice a long, plaintive exhale of alienation and pain. A nothing man with nothing. An Everyman for all time.
Aaron Durand, Keith Klassen and Giles Tomkins are Akakiy’s fellow office workers and resident tormentors, Sossiya, Mokiya and Khodozat, as unprincipled a band of indolent clerks as ever manned a trio of desks. No one likes a diligent man, they sing. The sheer brashness and energy here is glorious, tenor Asitha Tennekoon contributing a note of strained disapproval as a stressed, high-strung Manager. Meher Pavri is his vampish Secretary.
As Head of Department, Peter McGillivray captivates, the penultimate bumbling bureaucrat, reappearing a few short moments later as irascible, “snuff”-snorting Petrovitch the Tailor — The man who cares. Upstairs. The shift in dramatic demands could not be more pronounced. McGillivray’s mastery of characterization, embodied as much in voice as posture and pose, is remarkable.
In a dual role as Mad Chorus 3, Erica Iris Huang appears again as Petrovitch’s weary wife. What is a man without a proper coat?, declares her husband. Their busy tailoring duet, McGillivray at a sewing machine, Huang closely supervising, is one of the highlights of the evening.
Andrea Ludwig delights as Akakiy’s Landlady, her perpetual bowls of cabbage soup forever going uneaten, her heated gestures of less than innocent affection forever ignored.
Magali Simard-Galdes, Caitlin Wood and Erica Iris Huang are a bewitching Mad Chorus, their sweet, closely arrayed voices consistently commanding attention lights up to fade out. Life in St. Petersburg is bedlam and the inmates are in charge.
The Overcoat is an astonishing production. This is music theatre of great precision and refinement, profoundly touching, superbly sung and played, an experience that long lives in memory. It must be seen.
Toronto performances at the Bluma Appel Theatre until April 14. Opens April 28 at the Vancouver Playhouse.
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Above: Colin Heath, Movement Performer (hidden). Geoffrey Sirett as Akakiy Akakievitch. Photo by Dahlia Katz