Saturday, September 10, 2005

Under the Coat

Needing neither clothing nor heads, the dress forms whirl from the wings of their own volition; their felt and wire figures spin between actors and then return to the curtain. The idea of framework is thus briefly--literally--suggested. In the wildly chaotic and precisely choreographed sewing shop scene in The Overcoat, those autonomous dress forms seem a fitting metaphor for the production itself. Without dialogue, the story is brought to life by means which more often play the supportive, accompanimental role, from the props and actors' physical gestures to the set and lighting design. Morris Panych and Wendy Gorling's creation hums with a vitality that usually lies just beneath the surface; here, the theatrical "cogs and wheels" narrate a story sans mot.

As produced by the Canadian Stage Company, Nikolai Gogol's tale is given an early 20th century futuristic look: proletariats attired in black and white, or grey and brown, swarm through a utilitarian, two-storied set built along clean geometric lines. The lighting often reinforces this strict geometry, particularly in the sweatshop scene where each well-muscled "seamstress" is lit tic-tac-toe style, one grid-square at a time. Fueled throughout by the music of Dmitri Shostakovich, the actors' movements seem all the more motorific. I applaud the uncredited musical consultant who crafted the seamless score; waltzes from the Jazz and Ballet Suites merge with music from the two Piano Concertos, lacing social frivolity with an ominous portent. Everything--sound, lighting, set and costume--works together to heighten the dynamism of movement onstage. Sometimes a narrator needs no words.

In this adaptation of The Overcoat, we watch the main character (The Man, played by Peter Anderson) endure his rather humdrum existence as part of the masses and wince when, almost on a whim, he decides to spend his life savings on a brilliant purple coat. The article of clothing initially seems capable of altering how people read him--he enjoys wine, women and song--but then the loss of the coat shatters the illusion. It is as if Gogol taunts, 'see what happens when you wish for more?' The production is much smarter than The Man, never wishing for (never needing) the artificial adornment of language. As Paynch remarks, "you could use words, but then the whole thing would become silly." The inner workings are enough; gesture and movement convey a narrative plot clearly and specifically. Whether bunched all together as if riding a crowded bus, or streaming endlessly across the stage at the wryly choreographed curtain-call, the actors celebrate what hides under the coat; they strip off the usual wordiness and expose a surprisingly animate (albeit silent) machine.

The Overcoat, at A.C.T through September 25. Highly recommended.


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