Gogol’s Diary of A Madman, directed by Eugene Lazare now playing at The American Theatre of Actors is a triumph of acting for Ilia Volok. Up the two flights of stairs to the small unassuming theatre is a performance of beauty and intensity.
The allure of this play is that it is forever open to interpretation. Actors and directors have no limits as to what the descent into madness will look like. The main character, Aksenty Ivanovich Poprishchin, tells us his story through a series of journal entries, giving us detailed information right down to the date of the entry, giving us the timeline it will take for this man to travel down the road to madness. Gogol himself would go mad at the end of his life, burning manuscripts with religious fervor, but at the time of this writing he had not yet unleashed those demons, and clearly they were there waiting in the dark corners of his mind.
Poprishchin is a man of the lowest income and position in Russia at the time of the Tsar. He is a Titular Councilor, a man who sharpens pencils. It is a menial job with no future. He is beneath everyone and so in his madness he will come to imagine himself a great man, a king, King of Spain to be exact.
Many who go mad believe themselves to be great men and women. The Three Christs of Ypsilanti being one example. Three men in an asylum believing themselves to be Jesus Christ expounding their holier than thou attitudes. And there are women who believe themselves to be the Virgin Mary or Cleopatra. It is an escape from a lesser reality.
A multitude of us hope for the day when we will be great and will get the girl, the guy, the job, the money and “show them,” and while these are visions of grandeur, they do not push the majority to the brink and beyond. It is for the mad to cross that line and Poprishchin does just that.
He is in love with his boss’ daughter, Sophie. He imagines them being together. The first indication of his psychosis is his belief he has heard Sophie’s dog Medji, talking with another dog. “Not unusual,” he writes in his diary, as he has heard other animals speak. Eventually he reads letters that he believes Medji has written, talking about Sophie and the stupid lowlife pencil sharpening office clerk. These letters are his undoing. With this affront to his self-esteem, Popshinchin’s need to be great in order to win Sophie overwhelms his being. Quickly he believes he is the King of Spain and eventually he is in Spain (which he says is also China). He is really in the asylum where the mad are beaten and tortured.
I cannot dispute that a one-person show is tricky. I have a friend who feels they lack power. The power of a show lies in the friction, the electricity of more than one actor in conflict with another is her belief. It’s a valid argument. However, Ilia Volok is not alone on stage. The madness itself tangible. The people, the dogs, all present and accounted for. That is the strength of his performance. Mr. Vokol is truth. He resides in the moment. He is an actor’s actor.
It is with that that I must say I wish the production trusted him more. I wish they had seen that Gogol’s story and Volok’s performance are enough, so that they would not need to add so many sound and lighting cues that are distracting at best and absolutely overpowering at worst. The musical portions of the sound cues were at times distractions, but the dogs barking, rain falling, carriages going and clocks ticking – too much, way, way too much. I do understand the desire to “help” the audience imagine what the character is seeing and thinking, but the phenomenal talent of Mr. Volok does that and more. Forget the frosting and all the gooey distractions on top and just eat the perfect and delectable cake on the inside.
Diary Of A Madman by Nikolia Gogol, adapted for the stage by Eugene Lazarev and Ilia Volok, directed by Eugene Lazarev.
Cast: Ilia Volok.
Design Team: Lighting Design: Ken Coughlin, Sound Design: David Marling, Costume Design: Knarik Balayan, Stage Manager: Fanny Guillot
Diary Of A Madman at The American Theatre For Actors, 314 W 54th Street. The limited engagement will closes on November 12th, 2017.
For tickets, go HERE.
The American Theatre of Actors (Beckmann Theater) is located at 314 W 54th St, New York City 10019. Performances run October 24-November 12, 2017, playing Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at 8pm; Saturday at 3:00 & 8:00 pm; and Sunday at 3pm. C
Click HERE for more information on Ilia and Diary of a Madman.