Prop Theatre

Nikolay Gogol is best known in the theater for his comedy The Inspector General, which so bitterly satirized Russia’s corrupt autocracy that after the play’s controversial opening Gogol fled into exile rather than face the wrath of the authorities. But Gogol also wrote a handful of darkly comic short stories (among them “The Overcoat,” “The Nose,” and “Diary of a Madman”) that exposed the bleak lives of Saint Petersburg’s clerical workers.

These stories profoundly influenced the next generation of Russian writers; Dostoyevski once quipped that he and his cohorts all emerged from “under Gogol’s “Overcoat.”‘ They are still remarkably fresh and funny–largely because office work is still as mind numbing today as it was 160 years ago.

Of these tales, none is more ripe for stage adaptation than “Diary of a Madman.” Structured as a series of monologues disguised as journal entries, the story could easily be translated verbatim to the stage as a tragicomic one-man show with no damage to the work. And the protagonist is just the kind of flighty, unstable, highly emotional, incredibly eccentric character that any actor worthy of his craft would love to sink his teeth into. In fact, at least three stage adaptations of this story have been produced in this country in the past 30 years, including one by Brecht scholar Eric Bentley.

However, it would be hard to find a better matching of material and performer than Rush Pearson’s flawless, funny one-man performance. Pearson is best known here for his work in the early 80s with the old Practical Theatre Company–his last show in Chicago was the last show the company performed at its now-defunct John Lennon Auditorium on Howard Street in the mid-80s. His performance as Gogol’s madman contains much of the youthful energy, inspired silliness, and terrific comic timing that was Practical Theatre’s trademark (and still informs the work of alums such as Paul Barrosse and Jamie Baron).

Yet something darker now permeates Pearson’s work. Behind the comedy lurks a desperation and sadness that’s completely in tune with Gogol’s Slavic comic fatalism but clearly antithetical to the buoyant, mindless, even Reaganesque optimism of Practical’s shows. From the moment the show begins, Pearson seems every inch the frustrated clerk driven half mad by a life of deadening routine (his most interesting task consists of sharpening quills for his boss) with no hope of change or challenge.

Perhaps Pearson’s comic acting has darkened with age. Or perhaps his work as an adapter–he cobbled together his script from several translations of Gogol’s work–guaranteed that he understood in his bones Gogol’s worldview, described by one critic as a “mixture of profound tragedy and almost farcical comedy.”

This familiarity with Gogol’s writings might also explain why Pearson earns big laughs for even the more subtle comic moments. And why he is able, after delivering 45 minutes of what could easily be the funniest performance currently running in Chicago, to successfully shift gears from the comic to the tragic, revealing in a few brief moments all of the horror, pain, and confusion in the mad clerk’s soul.

Pearson’s work in the rough-and-tumble world of Renaissance fairs, where his stage is a mud pit and his competition is everything else going on around him, shows in the expert way he grabs the audience’s attention from the first word. He keeps us riveted to him, worrying about his fate even as he slips into a hilariously delusionary world in which dogs write each other letters and mad clerks are suddenly crowned king of Spain.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne Crawford.