Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Diary of a Madman
Also see Richard's review of The Good Doctor
Nikolai Gogol's play about a mid-level civil servant touches a common nerve, the fear that we may be completely inadequate for every happiness we dream of, and willfully blind to the tragedy of our own lives. Wrapped in that awkward ignorance, Christopher Harris seems perfectly rational taking each new step toward an irrevocable darkness, just the same way you or I might confidently go to work, or plan a trip, or open an IRA.
Poprishchin (Mr. Harris) has proudly ended up as the clerk who sharpens quills for a government administrator (in St. Petersburg, in the first half of the 19th century). And he's foolishly imagined a love affair with his boss's daughter. And bit by bit, it all goes downhill from there.
Well, it really probably started going downhill long before that, with the misguided sense of pride, and the air he invests in his lowly station, against the world in general. In any case, Mr. Harris sweeps us along in a charming, comedic swirl, under the direction of company founder Philip Boehm. And as we can feel ourselves having made nearly every little mistake he's making right there in front of us, we go along, as he proudly destroys himself. Not that I've ever tried to steal the diary of a little dog, though the thought may have crossed my mind once or twice.
Magan Wiles co-stars, mainly as Propishchin's dimwitted, foreign maidand you can see right away from her puppet-like walk that he is not in the habit of seeing anyone as they really are. Later, Ms. Wiles returns as his boss's daughter, singing ethereally, like a Disney princess. You could say he has a very romantic heart, for all the good it does him. But the romance always seems to put him right at the center of his own Universe.
He embarks on an adventure to learn all about his princess, and what he finds pushes him farther into madnessthough he's usually holding a shield of superiority aloft against an oblivious world. And yet, a sense of simple brilliance in the writing and performing lightly mediates against complete despair. Every possible style-point is earned through wit and ingenuity and hard work, but the force of love that usually propels an Upstream Theatre production into the cosmos is directed inward here, propelling our spirits frighteningly, speedily downward. And off in the shadows, Joe Dreyer's lithe, original music-hall style piano accompaniment is playfully melodramatic and gleefully fun, and (now and then) a strange warning, too.
I don't want to reveal the invisible "side-doors" Poprishchin slips through into madness, but you almost can't help following right along with himeven as he becomes more and more delusional and the play reaches its conclusion. Then the tortures that await him in the world of 19th century mental institutions only make us want to yank him back, or shield him even further.
The pity of it all: in his foolish pride, we can see it happening to any of us.
Adapted by David Holman, with Neil Armfield and Geoffrey Rush, Diary of a Madman runs through October 20, 2013, in the Big Brothers/Big Sisters Building, 501 North Grand (at Olive), a block south of the Fox Theatre. Some parking is usually available along Lindell Blvd., another block south. For ticketing and more information, visit www.upstreamtheater.org/.
* Denotes member, Actors Equity Association, the professional union of actors and stage managers in the US
** Denotes member, United Scenic Artists Local 829, USA, represents professional theatrical designers and scenic artists in the US.
Photo: Peter Wochniak