The Overcoat” is a simple moral fable, told in truly remarkable fashion. Inspired by Gogol’s story of the same name and by his “Diary of a Madman,” it tells of the Man, a poor, downtrodden creature with a shabby, threadbare coat. At work, he is bullied and ridiculed by his fellow draftsmen and scorned by the pretty secretaries. At home he is relentlessly pursued by his lusty landlady, cigarette dangling unappetizingly from her mouth, but he is too timid or too sensitive to succumb to her advances.
All this changes when he visits the tailor and has a wonderful coat made. Suddenly he’s a king: his bosses and the secretaries think he’s wonderful. Then he has a drink (actually several drinks) too many, finds himself in the red light district, is robbed of his coat and descends into madness, harsh punishment indeed for only a modest display of hubris.
What makes this production exceptional is that the tale is told without a single word being spoken. Panych, an accomplished playwright, and Goring, an award-winning choreographer, have woven a seamless piece of dance theater that operates on a grand scale. Accompanied by the music of Dmitri Shostakovich, the cast of 22 swirls through scenes as public as a sweatshop, a men’s outfitters and a streetcar, as private as the Man’s bedroom and as chilling as an insane asylum.
The style is Chaplinesque and lovingly borrowed from the silent-movie era. Movements are broad, often jerky, and the actingstyle is large without slipping into the melodramatic. Set designer Ken MacDonald pays tribute to “Metropolis” and “Modern Times” with a magnificent wall of windows and huge, slowly turning industrial wheels that descend from time to time.
At the heart of the show is the long lean figure of Peter Anderson as the Man , a nerd touched with nobility. Like Chaplin, he has a sweet innocence that triumphantly survives all the vicious tricks hurled at him by an uncaring, vindictive world. The final scene is heartrending.
“The Overcoat” swept eight of Vancouver’s local theater awards in 1997 and is finally crossing Canada. After it closes in Toronto, it moves to Ottawa’s National Arts Center and on to Winnipeg’s Manitoba Theater Center. With a two-story set weighing in at over 10 tons and with 85 costumes, it’s taken a while to arrange the tour. It’s been well worth the wait.