Geoffrey Rush (Photo by Stephanie Berger)
NEW YORK – Australian actor Geoffrey Rush is giving a dazzling performance in a stage version of Nikolai Gogol’s 1835 short story, "The Diary of a Madman," at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater through March 12.
Mr. Rush’s brilliant tour de force is right up there with his Oscar-nominated performance in "The King’s Speech" and his 2009 Tony Award-winning turn in Ionesco’s "Exit the King." Although it lags a bit towards the end, this "Diary of a Madman" has been skillfully adapted by David Holman, in collaboration with director Neil Armfield and Mr. Rush. Together, they have turned Gogol’s slim tale into a drama of uncommon theatrical power and distinction.
Basically, "Diary of a Madman" tells the story of a minor civil servant and quill mender, Aksentit Poprischin, who is stuck in a bureaucratic slough of despondency and is slowly losing his mind. Set in St. Petersburg, he lives in a shabby top-floor hovel of an apartment where the skylight leaks and the newspapers are piled high.
In a series of quick scenes that follow one another in swift succession, we get an up-close view of Poprischin’s mind unraveling before our eyes. The bureaucratic routine has broken his spirit and his Russian soul. In one diary entry about his monotonous workday, he states: "Moved paper from the left to the right side of the desk today. Went home at 4 p.m."
At home, a landlady harasses him, while a Finnish maid Tuovi (Yael Stone) brings him soup and does minimal housecleaning chores in return for some rudimentary lessons in Russian vocabulary. Ms. Stone a protean Australian actress, enacts all three of the women in the play, characters that the authors have added to flesh out Gogol’s story.
Poprischin’s only real sustenance exists in his dream of having his boss’s beautiful daughter Sophia, whom he refers to as his white peacock, pay some attention to him.
We get our first inkling of Poprischin’s sliding down the slippery slope to insanity when he tells us about listening in on a conversation between Sophia’s dog, Medji, and another dog, Fifi, hoping to get some news of Sophia’s love life. Soon, he’s stealing scraps of paper from Medji’s dog basket, thinking they are love letters.
By the end of Act II, Poprischin has pretty much mentally unfurled. Yet, he is still holding on to a whimsical nobility, thinking he is on his way to be crowned the king of Spain, when in reality he is headed to a mental institution.
Gogol’s story, and this theatrical adaptation, conjure up literary echoes of everything from Cervantes’s Don Quixote to Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener and James Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty..
Director Armfield and his co-writers have fashioned most episodes of the play with a dark humor, and Mr. Rush performs them all with a prankish sense of comedy that make Poprischin’s harrowing final scenes most effective. Rush gets into Poprischin’s soul; his performance is a marvel of subtlety, getting all the big and little hints of Gogol’s truths about Russian society of the day onto the stage.
Mr. Rush combines his film and stage technique to manifest the heart and soul and madness of Poprischin. In his movements, he can be a mime or a clown; in his quick facial expressions and in the tone of his voice, which is a perfect instrument, he can covey the character’s every emotion.
Mr. Rush brilliantly escorts us through two acts of the comic, puzzlingly impulsive and irrational behavior of a man’s descent into madness. What Gogol has created and Mr. Rush realizes on stage is a touching lost soul for the ages.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.