The Overcoat

Lifeline Theatre

By Adam Langer

“As for me, I’m going back in the closet–where men are empty overcoats.” –Groucho Marx

The overcoat–worn so thin it resembles cheesecloth–is hardly sufficient for the bone-numbing winters of Saint Petersburg. The laughingstock of the city, it’s the bane of Akaky Akakievich’s existence, a constant reminder of his position as a low-ranking bureaucratic functionary unable to perform any but the simplest of office tasks. It’s no wonder that when he’s able to scrape together the rubles for a lavish new coat, his entire life changes. No longer the subject of mockery, he’s looked upon with respect by his colleagues, admired by his landlady, and accepted into bourgeois society–introduced to a way of life so foreign to his drab little existence that when the new overcoat is rudely stolen, the loss literally kills him.

Written in 1842, Nikolay Gogol’s surreal comic masterwork still functions as a surprisingly contemporary critique of the pettiness of materialism and capitalist society. Having recently traded in a ratty-ass down jacket for a more respectable overcoat, I can attest to the jarring and somewhat alienating way in which a slight change in winter apparel can affect the way one is regarded, how the words “Just throw it on the bed” are replaced by “Let me hang that up,” and how “I’ve got a bottle of Shout if you want to get that ink stain out” becomes “Do you mind if I feel the fabric?”

The plight of poor, cursed Akaky Akakievich–a man so ordinary that his unimpressive future as a civil servant was assured even at his christening–suggests the fate of a figure in a Kafka story. But Akakievich lacks Joseph K.’s emotional wherewithal and intellectual capacity, actually seeming to enjoy his piddling copying tasks. He is an Everyschlepp–one who, according to Gogol, “was dear to no one, in whom no one was the least interested, not even the naturalist who cannot resist sticking a pin in a common fly and examining it under a microscope.” Even after his transformation, the only thing that makes Akaky worth anyone’s attention is the overcoat. And even after his death, he’s obsessed with overcoats, haunting his enemies and rivals by stealing their splendid winter garments and skulking off with them into the great beyond.

The key challenge in dramatizing Gogol’s short story is blending the wit and grotesque exaggeration of his comic vision with the bleak story line without turning the whole affair into a stultifying evening of readers’ theater. Devoid of any significant passages of dialogue and told with amused detachment, “The Overcoat” defies any traditional dramatic approach (it was performed to much critical acclaim by Marcel Marceau’s pantomime company). In her first work for the stage, adapter Karen Tarjan resists the temptation to bog the work down in scads of narration–a temptation that has felled some of the city’s more ballyhooed adapters.

Tarjan, who’s choreographed for the theater, employs an impressionistic approach that values movement and atmosphere over language; while her adaptation doesn’t preserve the pleasures of Gogol’s delightful narration and his sardonic digressions and asides, it does effectively immerse us in his quirkily exaggerated universe. In Lifeline Theatre’s vision of Saint Petersburg, bitter winds whistle, sending hapless actors and their overcoats swirling and tumbling about the stage like jubilant Hasidim at a wedding dance. As stray newspapers blow into their faces, blizzards of paper snow fly.

Akakievich’s beloved maroon overcoat first appears as a ghostly apparition, a 12-foot puppet hovering above him enticingly. When the henpecked tailor Petrovich (who wears a giant pincushion as a hat) fashions Akaky’s overcoat, the process is represented by a comic, almost Seussian dance involving a giant pair of scissors. The revelry of bourgeois society is represented by a pitcher of flowers and lavishly set table descending from the ceiling on a pulley, in the style of a Buster Keaton short. And in a truly inspired moment filled with the fanciful pathos of Gogol’s writing, Akaky’s change in self-conception when he dons his new overcoat is represented by an image of him flying, sailing past a miniature puppet of his landlady.

Tarjan has written her dialogue in a kind of shorthand, short bursts of sentence fragments and repeated phrases. Wisely, she preserves the spirit and much of the letter of Akakievich’s clipped and stammering speeches–those of a man who, in Gogol’s words, “spoke mainly in prepositions, adverbs and resorted to parts of speech which had no meaning whatsoever.” As wittily played by Steve Totland in Lifeline’s premiere of Tarjan’s adaptation, Akaky has a speech pattern suggesting equal parts Anthony Perkins as Joseph K. in Orson Welles’s version of The Trial and Bugs Bunny.

Tarjan’s greatest accomplishment is her ability to mingle a playful, airy quality with an overriding sense of helplessness and despair. And the limber and agile cast, directed by Ann Boyd, achieves the mastery of physical comedy Tarjan’s adaptation requires. (Some performances, however, veer into Looney Tunes territory–especially the portrayals of Petrovich and his wife, who resemble the ogre and his spouse in a staging for children of “Jack and the Beanstalk.”) Astutely paced and consistently inventive over the first hour or so, this Overcoat falters only in its last 15 minutes, when the production seems to lose its effervescent spirit, and much of Gogol’s increasingly bizarre conclusion registers as anticlimax.

Nothing after the theft of Akaky’s prized overcoat–from his demise to his return as a coat-snatching poltergeist–has much of an impact. Perhaps Lifeline’s bag of theatrical tricks has been emptied by this point. A frantic discussion between Akaky and a high-ranking official regarding his stolen coat–which comes across as witty political commentary filled with irony in Gogol’s text–seems almost an overextended afterthought here. And Akaky’s wonderfully fanciful posthumous wanderings lose something when they’re literalized onstage.

But it’s hardly surprising that Lifeline isn’t able to capture all the nuances of Gogol’s original. Commendably, they come close, effectively converting a 150-year-old text into a vital, exceedingly contemporary and entertaining evening of theater.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The Overcoat film still by Suzanne Plunkett.