The Australians are back! Last year Neil Armfield and Geoffrey Rush bowled us over with their production of “Exit the King” on Broadway. It was a scrumptious show, combining hilarity and heartbreak, exported to America from their Australian theatre company Belvoir. They've done it again. This year, the duo have re-created the production that jump-started their careers two decades ago, the dramatization of Nikolai Gogol’s short story, “The Diary of a Madman,” with a script written by David Colman, Rush, and Armfield. Oh happy we, who have the opportunity to see this bravura performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theatre.
This extraordinary production is a brilliant telling of Gogol’s tale, replete with shadow characters, music and musicians who “speak” back to the infamous Madman, Poprishchin. Poprishchin is a government clerk of the ninth grade, an impoverished “gentleman” who earns his tiny attic room as a civil servant with the tiny claim to glory of being chosen to sharpen the big boss’s quills. This is the mid-nineteenth century, Russia, and it’s cold. Poprishchin’s garret is bare but for a bed with a flimsy quilt, two throw pillows, a small table and chair, and stacks of newspapers, one easily twice his height. The room is reached by a poorly lit staircase we see at the foot of the stage, and topped by a leaky roof with a dirty skylight.
Over two acts, we watch Poprishchin devolve into delusion. For the first half, this is deliciously hilarious, with Poprishchin falling for the daughter of the big boss, a pretty, snobby little thing who wouldn’t deign to notice him. Then he “hears” conversations between her dog and another, including the claim of one that she – the dog, not the lady -- had written letters that must have gone astray. Letters? Poprishchin must find this correspondence, and does. The story of the boss’ daughter falling in love with a servant of the bedchamber – that is, a gentleman with a gentleman’s job and station – is told through the dogs’ correspondence. The act of retrieving that correspondence was not without peril to Poprishchin, and he wears the scars for the rest of the play. His daily diary entries inform us of the doings of his world, including a vacancy on the Spanish throne. Naturally, this leads the out-of-place Poprishchin to believe that he is the missing King of Spain, hiding in Russia until the Spanish delegation comes to install him on the throne.
Follow? You will. Everything Geoffrey Rush’s Poprishchin says makes perfect sense, even when it’s quite mad.
This is all exceptionally sad, of course, but we don’t respond to the sadness until it slaps us in the face in the second act. We just laugh uproariously. Geoffrey Rush is loose-limbed, his long hands seem to reach down to his ankles, he can do things with his arms you wouldn’t believe and might not even see until you look beyond him to the massive shadow he casts on the stage walls. He is vocally foppish, his reddish hair styled to be odd and clownlike in a frightfully fragile way. His feet don’t appear to touch the ground, his hands flutter to keep him afloat. Even if you had the pleasure of seeing Rush’s Tony-winning turn in “Exit the King,” you ain’t seeing nothin’ yet.
Accompanying Mr. Rush’s journey is Yael Stone, playing the Finnish maid Tuovi – a delightful creature who rushes about bent over, scrubbing, practicing her Russian (which we thankfully hear in bad English) and trying to take care of the ever worsening Poprishchin; Ms. Stone also plays the aloof love interest Sophia, a vision in white; as well as a fellow resident of “Madrid” in the final scenes. At one point she even joins the musicians in the box creating the auditory world of our favorite Madman. This young woman is remarkable, malleable, we adore her immediately as the grateful and kind servant with enormous energy and humor. If anyone could have kept Poprishchin sane, it would have been her, but it was too late.
What Poprishchin does not have, he creates out of his surroundings and his imagination, and it’s all marvelous until he exits his reality into his much pleasanter world of unreality. No amount of beatings will bring him out. Before the twentieth century (and probably late into it), the mad were hidden away and abused, so the viewer must wonder why anyone would be expected to come to his “senses” while being whipped. Staying mad seems much safer, if not saner.
The Musicians are Paul Cutlan and Erkki Veltheim, and the play cannot be considered separately from them. They are additional voices to the scenes, they comment, they respond, they goad, they aid. Alan John’s music (after Mussorgsky, per the program) is mournful and joyous, still and spritely, by turns. It and its performers provide additional levels to the story.
Costume design is clever and hilarious and remarkably useful by Tess Schofield, set design by Catherine Martin is dark, dank, dangerous, delightful. Lighting by Mark Shelton, sound by Paul Charlier are outstanding, creating aural and visual shadows against the stark set.
Once again, these artists have given us hilarity and heartbreak in one evening. “Diary of a Madman” is a rare treat, a perfectly integrated production of script, sound, and sights brought together in profound harmony by Mr. Armfield with a virtuoso performance from Mr. Rush. In years to come, you want to be able to answer “yes” to the question: “Did you see his Poprishchin?”
The good news is, it’s still running. You have until March 12.
~ Molly Matera, signing off, still chuckling at a look here, a line there, over a week later.