Also see Sharon's review of God Save Gertrude
Rogue Artists Ensemble's production of Gogol Project is so close to being perfect, it very nearly breaks my heart that it isn't. The company's "hyper-theatrical" style, the stunning surrealistic puppets, the juxtaposition of the beautiful and the grotesque, and the driving and disconcerting music of Ego Plum all work together to brilliantly create the bizarre universe of Nikolai Gogol.
The adaptation, by Kitty Felde, weaves together three of Gogol's best-known short stories. Comedy is provided with "The Nose", the story of a government official who wakes one morning to discover that his nose has left his faceand, as it increases in size to the point where it towers over its previous owner, it takes on a life and celebrity of its own. The touching, emotional story is "The Overcoat," in which a poor mail clerk, whose coat becomes too threadbare to repair, spends all his money on the finest coat in the village, only to lose it to robbers and end up much worse than if he'd never bought the coat at all. And, unfortunately, the problem with the entire venture is the incorporation of "Diary of a Madman," which documents a man's descent into madness.
This latter story is a problem because it utterly fails to land with the audience. When we've just seen (and accepted) a gargantuan nose jumping into a well and saving a little dog from the sea monster living in the waters below, it's hard to grasp that a man who thinks he can understand what dogs are saying to each other is actually insane. Rogue Artists Ensemble does such a good job creating a world in which the ridiculous is everyday, we can no longer identify madness. And without that ability, "Diary of a Madman" simply makes no sense.
This fault in the play itself is so frustrating because the production is, in nearly every other way, jaw-droppingly good. One hesitates to describe the puppets in any level of detailthe "spoilers" here aren't the stories but the way in which they are conveyed. And certain puppets, which are revealed throughout the story, are increasingly inventive and whimsical. Take the newspaper clerk (operated by two puppeteers), whose nose is a giant piece of movable type, and you'll have some idea of what you're in for.
It isn't just really creative puppets for their own sake; Rogue Artists Ensemble uses its puppets in the service of the story. When our poor mail clerk sits at home and imagines himself as a letter carrier, he tosses a letter from his hand, and it is picked up (on the end of a stick) by a masked puppeteer, who then gently floats the letter into a mailbox, to the absolute joy of the clerk. It's silent, simple and beautifulas is the moment when the clerk dances a duet with his new overcoat.
The production also plays with reality in the extent to which the characters are, well, realized. While most of the company is masked, a few, including our mail clerk, are not. Most speak, some do not. One character is so flimsy, she's a life-sized paper cut-out, carried around by her mother in a bag labelled "DAUGHTER." And, while the rationale for each of these choices isn't always clear, it is often used to delightful dramatic effect. (Indeed, the muteness of one character is used to comical effect; another's silence is cause for audience sympathy.)
The resulting effort is a unique theatrical eventfunny, touching, thought-provoking and beautifully inventive. That it completely fails to put across one-third of its story prevents it from being the best damn thing on a stage this year.
Gogol Project runs through November 1, 2009 at the Bootleg Theater in Los Angeles. For tickets and information, see www.rogueartists.org.
Rogue Artists Ensemble in association with Bootleg Theater presents Gogol Project based on the short stories of Nikolai Gogol. Written by Kitty Felde; Music by Ego Plum; Directed by Sean T. Cawelti. Choreography Nate Hodges; Scenic Design Katie Polebaum; Costume Design Kerry Hennessy; Lighting Design Haylee Freeman; Sound Design John Nobori; Illustration & Video Design Brian White; Puppet Design Wes Crain, Lena Garcia, Lynn Jeffries, Elizabeth Luce, Brian White; Mask Design Pat Rubio; Properties Design Dicapria; Hair & Makeup Janelle Meinert, Kellie Riganti; Dramaturgy Ben Phelps; Production Management Ian Garrett, Justine Garrett; Stage Management Shannon Goldsborough; Technical Direction Michael Jordan; Movement Coach Jan Munroe; Dialect Coach Paul St. Peter; Puppet Coach Christine Papalexis; Assistant Director Tyler Stamets; Assistant Mask Design Hosanna Gilbert; Assistant Costume Design Emily Coalson; Assistant Stage Manager Micah Trapp, Emily Williams.