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San Francisco by Richard Connema

The Overcoat is a Sumptuous, Stylish
Work of Theatrical Art

Also see Richard's reviews of Miss Saigon, Linda Lavin at the Plush Room and Intimate Apparel

The Overcoat
Peter Anderson
American Conservatory Theatre opens its 39th season with the CanStage production of The Overcoat, created by award-winning theater artists Morris Panych and Wendy Gorling, adapted from Nikolai Gogol's two short stories The Overcoat and Diary of a Madman and featuring the music of Dmitri Shostakovich. It runs at the Geary Theatre in San Francisco through September 25. This is a spectacular, elegant work that combines movement, music and mime into one of the most outstanding productions of the year.

The Overcoat was created in 1997 by Morris Panych and Wendy Gorling for the Vancouver Playhouse and then performed last year at the Toronto World Stage Festival. The stylish work was performed this year at the Bushnell Center for Performing Arts in Hartford, Connecticut where Time Magazine said it was "a piece of bravura theater-making that mixes Buster Keaton with Gogol and purrs like a Rolls Royce." The two hour production is very reminiscent of Charles Chaplin's classic film Modern Times. As Artistic Director Carey Perloff describes it, The Overcoat "is about a little man up against the bureaucracy of the world."

The awesome piece of theatre follows the social rise and consequent descent into madness of Bashmachkin (Peter Anderson), called The Man in this production. He is a very talented draftsman but the office workers and supervisors make him a scapegoat because of the dingy, threadbare coat that he wears to the office each day. The Man purchases a splendid new purple cashmere coat and his rivals become green with envy as the office gals go wild over the newly changed man. The bosses become impressed with the luxurious look of the coat

The Man gets invited to an upscale party and he becomes drunk on all of the attention he is receiving from his bosses and the company secretary whom he has lusted over for a long time. The Man becomes so inebriated that he staggers into a bad section of town where he is robbed of his coat by a prostitute. Franticly, he searches for the lost coat, even going to the local police where he finds frustration and the unfathomable nature of police bureaucracy since he has to fill out many forms. The Man finally goes mad and ends up in an insane asylum where he receives his new coat, a straight jacket.

The Overcoat's opening is sheer genius as we see the 21 actors carrying a wooden pool over their heads to stimulate riding on a subway to work in the dead of winter in St. Petersburg. It's an amazing scene set to Shostakovich's Jazz Suite No 1. There is not one dull spot in the whole production as the actors continue to amaze us with their precision, accompanied by the Russian composer's striking music played by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra via recording. There is an ambiance of sex and lust throughout the whole production, from the The Man unashamed of cruising the company's secretary to The Man's landlady who wants to bed The Man. There is even an ingeniously staged waltz between the The Man and his new overcoat.

Movement to the music replaces words in this masterpiece of theatre. Panych and Gorling keeps things moving as the cast moves smoothly across the stage, dreamlike in many of the scenes. The Kafka and Chaplin influence is very prevalent in this gossamer production.

The impressive two-story set, designed by Ken MacDonald, is composed of sliding, multi-paned office windows, a wrought iron staircase on wheels and a giant wheel machine that looks like it came from Modern Times. Nancy Bryant's costumes of both the poor and the rich in the early 20th century in St. Petersburg are right on the mark. Lighting by Alan Brodie is exceptional. This is modern theatre at its finest.

The Overcoat runs through September 25 at A.C.T. Geary Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-749-2228 or on line at www.act-sf.org.

A.C.T.'s next production will be Tennessee Williams' Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, opening on October 13th and running through November 13th.


Photo: David Cooper



Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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