Don’t blame the mirror if your face is awry

Three playlets of high weirdness from Russia

Amy Danielson

Akaky Akakievich, (whose name is a scatological pun) adores the simplest language. Phrases such as “we regret to inform you” leave the aging clerk snickering and quivering in orgiastic delight. “Isn’t that the funniest thing you’ve every heard?” he quips. Akakievich is the delightful protagonist of Russian author Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Overcoat.” Steve Schroer of Hardcover Theater has adapted this story and Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman” and “The Nose” into a production entitled, “The Nose and other Mind-Boggling Stories by Nikolai Gogol.”

The mission of Hardcover Theater is to adapt literary works for the stage. “The Nose” is only their second production since their inception (following “Scary Christmas” last December), and demonstrates the company’s awkwardness.

The highlight of the production is John Adler’s performance as Akakievich. He infuses the naive old man with the delight of a young boy and the desperation of an aging peasant. Desperate for camaraderie and recognition, he finds pleasure in copying text with his delicate quill pen, delighting in every word when taunted by coworkers for being a recluse. Adler lurches around the bare stage, moaning and whining after someone on the street steals his new fur-trimmed overcoat that he purchased in a half-witted attempt to fit in.

Unfortunately, the production relies greatly on narration, such as when Akakievich says, “I begin to run after her.” The barren set only adds to the problem, making the production feel more like storytelling than theater. It might be the company’s goal to use a minimalist form to focus on the literature, but in this case it would be easier to stay home and read the original text. Gogol, who is perhaps best known for “Dead Souls” and “The Government Inspector,” wrote these amusing stories of human nature over 150 years ago with humor and colorful language. Now, Hardcover Theater has scraped most of the bravado from them, leaving them limp and bland.

The company attempts to reconcile these problems by lightly peppering the production with attempts at macabre humor. Some of these moments work, but most are just awkward, stylistically paradoxical to the remainder of the production. When the tailor in “The Overcoat” tells Akakievich that he cannot mend his worn overcoat, his face warps into a sinister grin and his eyes widen as the stage floods with red light and thunder echoes throughout the auditorium. Then there is the occasional unfunny moment of self-recognition such as when a voice from the loudspeaker begins narrating and one of the cast members shouts back, “Excuse me, we’re not done with this scene yet!”

“Diary of a Madman” is a story of a man who tries to get close to a girl by reading the love notes from her uppity dog Sophie (played daintily by Katie Kaufmann) to a big brown dog named Fido. Much of this story also hinges heavily on narration – the madman reading his journal entries which become more and more absurd as the story progresses (“The 86th of Junenember,” he begins one entry) and the dog reading her love notes (“You cannot understand me until you understand my taste in bones”). Most of the time, the characters do not physically interact, but rather declaim their lines side by side, facing the audience and often commenting on the other’s action.

“The Nose” might be the most absurd of the three stories, but by the time the production gets to it, the boredom of the banality has set in, and any attempt at recovery is futile. A government official has lost his nose, and now his nose outranks him. The company makes good use of a giant nose sheathing Katie Kaufmann’s head, and to see her riding in a wheelchair with a toy stick-horse is amusing, although hardly enough to make up for the ride we’ve endured. But all is not lost. With any luck, Hardcover will establish a following with their upcoming Fringe Festival show, “The Good Parts: Notorious Literary Sex Scenes.”

“The Nose and Other Mind-Boggling Stories by Nikolai Gogol” plays through May 11 at the Playwrights’ Center, (612) 332-7481.

Amy Danielson welcomes comments at [email protected]