by Hugh Hunter
Based on the famous story by Nikolai Gogol, “The Diary of a Madman” is now being performed by the Quintessence players at the Sedgwick Theater in My. Airy. Originally adapted for the stage by David Holman (1988), it is the story of Poprishchin, a lowly civil servant who writes compulsively to stave off madness.
Poprishchin is full of resentment. He hates his supervisor (whom he ridicules through use of a finger puppet). At the same time he fantasizes about a love relationship with Sophia, the daughter of the department manager. Inexorably, fantasies take over his life.
Director Alexander Burns creates an expressionistic set. The floor of the elevated garret room is strangely tilted to one side, eccentric like the personality of Poprishchin himself. But as the diarist deteriorates, men in white coats creep under the floor scaffolding between scenes and turn the stage.
As Poprishchin grows more disoriented, stage angles change at an increasing pace. He intercepts the private correspondence of Sophia’s dogs. Later, he believes he is heir to the empty Spanish throne. Finally, the stage collapses altogether, and Poprishchin finds himself on the bare floor of an asylum ward.
The entire production is essentially visual. Inspired by an analogy to the desperate writers of our own blogosphere, director Burns has Poprishchin use a laptop. As the diarist looks into the monitor, two rear wall screens simultaneously show his face, eerily various and angled.
Daniel Frederick shines as Poprishchin. While Frederick’s elocution is well inflected, his expressive physical presence is so magnified by stage screens that the spoken word feels secondary. Eye-catching costume changes (designer Jane Casanave) abet this transformation to the visual.
Some try to help the tormented man. Rachel Brodeur is comical and charming as Tuovi, a Finnish servant girl who attends to all the roomers. Tuovi tries to enlist Poprishchin in her efforts to learn Russian, and beyond that seems to like him. But the diarist only wants Sophia (also played by Brodeur), the girl he cannot have.
The apt incidental music of pianist Jamison Foreman also plays a role. Though insistently chordal, Foreman is careful never to crescendo in such a way as to parallel and encourage Poprishchin’s descent into madness. But it all means nothing to the diarist.
Born in 1809, Gogol was a political conservative, yet much of his fiction seems to satirize Russia. Delusional as he is, Poprishchin bears witness in passing to objective wrongs -— the brutality of asylums, the pettiness of officialdom. It is tempting to view Gogol’s madman as an unwitting critic of the regime.
But mostly he is just a madman. And in a playful way, this production also presents madness as a species of theatricality. As much as anything, Poprishchin comes across as a bad actor, a ham who has no understanding of his role in its proper relationship to the big show.
Quintessence is located in the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave. “The Diary of a Madman” will run through March 10. Reservations at 1-877-238-5596.