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Out In The Cold

The Overcoat a bit threadbare

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There are conflicting opinions about which great Russian realist writer observed, "We all came out from under Gogol's 'Overcoat.'" Could have been Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, Fyodor Dostoevsky, or all of the above by various accounts. Likely, none of them actually mouthed the words. But they should have, and in the realm of fiction, that outweighs mundane actuality. For three appropriately low-budget performances last weekend, Theatre Charlotte revived that most threadbare of antiheroes, Akaky Akakyevich, in a Tom Lanter-Frank Torok stage adaptation of Nikolai Gogol's most notorious short story, The Overcoat.

Like Gogol's own most celebrated stage work, The Inspector General, there's a robust disdain in his 1842 narrative gem for government officials, bureaucracy, and the utter pettiness and pointlessness of modern life. But this isn't the master innovation extolled by writers and critics.

No, it's Akaky, in all his splendiferous insignificance, who represents the breakthrough. Ace storyteller Frank O'Connor, elaborating on the legendary hype for "The Overcoat," points to it as the first appearance of The Little Man in fiction. True heroes are never featured in modern short stories, O'Connor contends. Instead, human isolation and submerged population groups are prime features. Akaky's most memorable pronouncements -- spoken half out of torment and half as a pathetic subtext -- are, "Leave me alone! Why do you insult me?" and "I am your brother."

Vladimir Nabokov, extolling the genius of Gogol in "The Overcoat," also said you had to look beyond the story's critique of civil service and self-important government officials: "Something is very wrong and all men are mild lunatics engaged in pursuits that seem to them very important while an absurdly logical force keeps them at their futile jobs -- this is the real 'message' of the story. In this world of utter futility, of futile humility and futile domination, the highest degree that passion, desire, and creative urge can attain is a new cloak which both tailors and customers adore on their knees."

If only Gogol had had the presence of mind to plant a Christmas tree somewhere in his harrowing wintry tale, we would have a proper holiday antidote to the yearly productions of Dickens' A Christmas Carol that haunt the Yuletide season.

Devoted to the most mindless and stultifying of professions, that of a copy clerk, Akaky might have floated contentedly through life were it not for the cruel north winds that swirl through the streets of St. Petersburg on winter mornings, paralyzing all good bureaucrats on their way to work and shredding the flimsy fabrics they clutch to their bodies. Acquiring a new overcoat becomes every bit as important to Akaky as bestowing a life-giving bite of warm pheasant to the quivering lips of Tiny Tim would be for good Bob Cratchit.

Akaky reaches his desperate goal only to be robbed by muggers of his prized new garment before he has owned it for a full day. Then he comes face to face with the insensitivity and ineffectuality of the bureaucracy he has served so long without question. Finished off by that gracious St. Petersburg wind, Akaky dies delirious without a ruble to his name, buried before his co-workers can determine the cause of his absence. Not even the tiniest Tiny Tim blessing is left behind.

While Akaky's fate falls far short of affirming the grace of God and the sanctity of human life, Akaky's brief afterlife is even more comically bereft of affirmation. Lanter and Torok embellish and enlarge delightfully upon Akaky's reign of terror, borrowing ghostly scraps from A Christmas Carol and Amadeus. Stage director Dee Abdullah was more responsive to Gogol's comedy than to his pathos, ladling on extra gobs of cheesiness to top a cheap-o production.

The crass tedium of Akaky's workaday existence was effectively hammered home with a large chunk of rancid repetition. As Akaky steadfastly economizes to earn the precious rubles for his new coat, diligently cranking out his copies at work and staunchly leaning into that murderous wind, sound designer Greg James has the same tape playing back over and over, its numbing segments as pitifully cobbled together as Akaky's old coat.

While there's only one meaty role in Gogol's original fantasy, Lanter and Torok manage to dole out two more plums. They magnify the complicity of Akaky's landlady in his fate (and give her a name), and they gather up all the men who preside over Akaky's demise -- including his supervisor, his tailor, the VIP who quashes his last best hope, and Nikolai Gogol himself -- all under one bad wig.

Behind a phony mustache and the occasional eye patch, Alan McClintock served up this medley with winsome variety. Dmytro Krepak provided marvelous contrast as the dogged Akaky, never letting up on his resolute blandness nor thinning out his Slavik accent. As the landlady, Suzanne Bair effectively combined a superficial cheer with a righteous vanity.

The guys lurking on the outskirts were noticeably more self-assured than the womenfolk. If compelled to single out one aspect of the production that I'd wish were slicker, it would be the blacklight effects deployed to animate Akaky's dreamlife. Otherwise, Hallie Gray's lighting design was perfectly tailored.

Warming up for its joint January Othello-thon with BareBones Theatre Group, the Chickspeare banditas invaded Garbo's a couple of weeks back for a girl-illa reading stage production of Claire Chafee's Why We Have a Body. Centering around two eccentric sibs, Why follows four women taking four diverging -- don't you dare say deviant -- paths toward asserting selfhood outside the established female molds.

Revolving casts performed the script on two consecutive nights. I got to see Laura Depta, fresh off her smashing Charlotte debut in Thumbs, as Lili, the more stable sib. She's a perspicacious lesbian private eye romancing a paleontologist reeling toward divorce. Wayward sister Mary, boisterously done by Julie Janorschke, expresses her butch tendencies by knocking off 7-11s, making herself over as a dictatorial traffic director in her rehab phase.

The highly entertaining confection bodes well for the Othello-thon, which features Paula Vogel's Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief, opening at the cozy Off-Tryon Theatre in NoDa on January 10. Running in tandem with Des will be a concert version of Shakespeare's Othello, starring CL's reigning Theatreperson of the Year, April Jones, in the title role. *

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