When the firm's most poorly dressed and widely despised employee, simply known as "The Man" in CanStage's production (Akaky Akakievich in Gogol's original), ditches the mangled old threadbare overcoat he's been wearing for years and turns up at the office wearing a stunning piece of haute couture, his co-workers are in shock. At first embarrassed but then delighted by his sudden popularity among colleagues who had previously ignored or teased him, The Man cavorts around the stage, spreading the tails of his smart new overcoat -- a regal creation made of the highest-quality purple fabric with an ostentatious fur collar -- like wings. He looks like a rare species of butterfly.
Carey Perloff, the artistic director of ACT, which is hosting CanStage's The Overcoat during its San Francisco stay, describes the production as being about "a little man up against the bureaucracy of the world." Gogol's short story -- in which an office clerk agonizingly scrimps together enough money to buy a new overcoat, only to have it stolen from him the very next night -- is indeed a dark social comedy about an ordinary individual's battle to survive in a pitiless landscape full of unintelligible systems and hierarchies. But Wendy Gorling and Morris Panych's adaptation seems, to my mind, less concerned with the struggles of the Regular Joe than it is a perturbing and brilliant depiction of a "butterfly soul" -- an introspective artist who, in a moment of madness, chooses to flaunt his true colors to the world.
At the most basic level, the "ordinariness" of Gogol's protagonist, so deeply encoded in the character's lowly professional status and in the sacrifices he has to make just to come up with the cash to pay for a new coat, is undermined by Panych and Gorling's decision to turn that clerk into an artisan -- an industrious and talented architect. The Man certainly doesn't seem to have much difficulty paying for the new coat -- he unremorsefully hands over a wad of oversize bills to the tailor. The character's life, though dronelike in many ways, is hardly lived on the bread line. This suggests that Gorling and Panych's protagonist, as delicately personified by the gangly and sprightly haired Peter Anderson, is more of an eccentric and a dreamer than an impoverished waif on the lowest rung of the social ladder.
Gorling and Panych's production is an intoxicating expression of what it means to be a dreamer in a workaday world. Set entirely to the music of Dmitri Shostakovich, the story unfolds wordlessly through the gestures and movements of the large ensemble cast, the contrasts of light and shadow, and the manic expressiveness of the Russian composer's bewitching melodies and harmonies. The production features no professional dancers, yet the actors respond to the rhythms and phrases of the music as though they had all spent years in a corps de ballet. Even the furniture dances -- each piece flies about the stage on wheels. The connection between what we see onstage and what we hear is so complete, so seemingly intuitive, that it feels as if Shostakovich was commissioned to write a score to fit the play, rather than the other way around. (The composer did write a poorly received opera based on Gogol's short story "The Nose" in 1927-28, but was, of course, long dead before Panych and Gorling's time.) What the production effectively achieves, then, is the transformation of 17 separate excerpts of the Shostakovich canon -- specifically, selected movements from the composer's piano concertos, jazz suites, and symphonies -- into a seamless tone poem.
Just as Shostakovich's music veers between tonal and atonal realms, so The Man in The Overcoat inhabits a world where surface realities give way to nightmarish, internal impulses. CanStage's production behaves like an unraveling sleeve: From the very first moments, diabolical, arrhythmic forces are constantly interrupting the ordered, rhythmic realities of daily working life. Employees walk purposefully to the office; sweatshop laborers pump the foot pedals of their old-fashioned sewing machines with the vigor of racehorse jockeys; a giant machine robotically grinds its cogs stage right like something out of Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times. Yet all the while, disruption threatens. Unusual things flicker at the peripheries of Panych and Gorling's immaculately choreographed scenes, so unobtrusive that if you're not watching carefully you'll miss them. An asylum inmate dressed in white pajamas taps quietly at a window, high above the stage; a prostitute sways erotically in another corner like a figure in a George Grosz painting. The shadows created by the office/factory set's giant barred walls are chillingly institutional. All these elements are easily ignored, yet they are more closely aligned with The Man's inner universe, his creative core, than the superficial hustle and bustle of his daily existence.
In an essay about Gogol's "The Overcoat," "The Apotheosis of a Mask," Vladimir Nabokov says of the protagonist: "The making and the putting on of the cloak is really his disrobing and his gradual reversion to the stark nakedness of his own ghost." The act of putting on the new coat is, weirdly enough, tantamount to a striptease, and the gaudy exposition of The Man's fragile soul ultimately leads to his undoing. Watching the character, recently divested of his gorgeous butterfly mantle, shivering in shirt sleeves in the St. Petersburg snow in CanStage's production is to understand something about the nature of creativity: Ephemeral, raw, and subject to ridicule, artistic inspiration cannot adequately be articulated through words. Telling us this version of the story without them, as Gorling and Panych do, makes much more sense.