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The Overcoat

"The Overcoat" is an object lesson in the importance of self-worth, personal expression and good grooming -- after a fashion. In the American preem of a Canadian Equity-approved import, poised for a U.S. tour after its bow at the Bushnell, creators Morris Panych and Wendy Gorling have devised a sumptuous, stylish work.

“The Overcoat” is an object lesson in the importance of self-worth, personal expression and good grooming — after a fashion. In the American preem of a Canadian Equity-approved import, poised for a U.S. tour after its bow at the Bushnell, creators Morris Panych and Wendy Gorling have devised a sumptuous, stylish work that combines movement, music and mime into a glorious theatrical whole.

How American auds will take to the dialogue-free evening set to prerecorded music by Dmitri Shostakovich remains to be seen — and the Hartford subscription stint on its Broadway series is a good test run. Will it be a sleeper hit or a show that’s all dressed up with no place to go?

Regardless, the artistic rewards are great for this elegant expression of accomplished theatricality.

With stunning designs by Ken MacDonald, Alan Brodi’s lighting and Nancy Bryant’s costumes, production values are impressive. So is the kinetic 22-member ensemble, led by a lean and angular Peter Anderson, both noble and foolish as the Man.

In this accessible adaptation of Gogol’s mid-19th-century story (also incorporating his “Diary of a Madman”), the lead character is a poor schmo, a talented draftsman who’s ridiculed shamelessly at work — sometimes too often in this production — by his bullying or insensitive colleagues over his dismal, threadbare coat. Only when he purchases a custom-made creation do his fortunes turn around — temporarily.

Upon seeing his splendid new purple cashmere coat, his rivals are envious, the office gals are gaga and even the bosses are impressed. Clothes do make the Man of the moment. He gets invited to a party where he becomes drunk on all the newfound attention. He becomes inebriated on vino as well, stumbling into a dicey section of town where he is robbed of his coat. Bereft of his status symbol, he loses his will to live and descends into madness.

A little downbeat perhaps, but the production’s rich imagination and gossamer execution keeps things dazzling. The ensemble, playing multiple parts, glides about onstage as if on roller skates. Indeed, the entire production has the poetic grace of a dream — and, later, a nightmare — with the co-directors creating memorable stage moments: The Man’s dancing with his beautiful new coat; the party scene where a half-dozen stories are clearly told; a mental meltdown as the Man tries to rewind the evening in order to remember how he lost his coat.

Panych and Gorling have created a sort of silent Kafka-cum-Chaplin film for the stage, complete with opening credits on the scrim. But lack of dialogue and expressionistic perfs, while powerful, can remove an audience from a more nuanced intimacy. We are fascinated by the brilliantly executed and inevitable story but not always personally invested.

Toward the end, when the pace slows, we are touched by the subtlety of Anderson’s dramatic perf. Suddenly we’re not watching a morality tale writ large but a personal tragedy brought down to the smallest, heartbreaking level. It’s a human grace note that caps a splendid show.

The Overcoat

Belding Theater at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, Hartford, Conn.; 900 seats; $60 top

  • Production: A Canadian Stage Company, Glynis Henderson Prods. and Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts presentation of a play in two acts, created and directed by Morris Panych and Wendy Gorling.
  • Crew: Sets, Ken MacDonald; costumes, Nancy Bryant; lighting, Alan Brodie; production stage manager, Jan Hodgson. Opened, reviewed Jan. 18, 2005. Runs through Jan. 30. Running time: 1 HOUR, 45 MIN.
  • Cast: The Man - Peter Anderson New Girl - Judi Closkey Landlady - Tracey Ferencz Office Manager - Colin Heath Secretary to Head of Firm - Cyndi Mason Head of the Firm - Allan Morgan <b>With:</b> Victoria Adilman, Matt Bois, Mark Christmann, Diana Coatsworth, Monica Dottor, Peter Grier, Ryan Hollyman, Matthew Hunt, Darren Hynes, Graham Percy, Avi Phillips, Martha Ross, Derek Scott, Sal Scozzari, Courtenay J. Stevens, Brahm Taylor.
  • Music By: