"Diary of a Madman" is a beautifully crafted tale of ambition, longing and delusion set in the Russian Empire during the reign of Nicholas the First. The play is constructed from within the mind of our lead character and, as such, is delivered in the form of a monologue with multiple scenes.
The diary-like device of the short story works quite well on stage, allowing the characters the opportunity to move, fluidly, from telling to showing to a mix thereof.
Aksentii Ivanovich Poprishchin is a ninth level clerk; he also has the distinction of being the clerk responsible for sharpening the director's quill's and delivering letters for his review and signature every Wednesday. Think of him as the help desk guy for the czarist courts.
Christopher Harris is delightful as the clerk, Poprishchin, and he owns both the character and the space with a familiar confidence that I found thoroughly engaging. While his mannerisms and references may reflect an earlier period, his gossipy nature, fastidious behavior and comments on fashion, not to mention his superior disdain of the French, would easily fit in a contemporary government or corporate bureaucracy.
Harris's portrayal also has a deep connection to the theme and language, lending an effortless quality to his performance. His physicality and voice are well suited to the character. Whether crawling under the bed or falling awkwardly, his pratfalls stumble with comedic grace, then he gracefully twirls around a corner of the angled stage.
Harris is wonderfully supported by Megan Wiles, playing three different interpretations of an ingénue, and the "orchestra," as played on piano with a light, comedic touch by Joe Dreyer.
Wiles has a naturally expressive face, her reactions always true and in the moment. She succeeds in significantly varying each character she plays, while keeping all three thematically connected. Wiles is over-the-top funny with the naïve, inquisitive and emotional Tuovi; presumptuous and unattainable as the director's daughter, the object of Poprishchin's love; and Ophelia-like as Tatiana an inmate at the asylum.
Dreyer composed the piano accompaniment, and he and Harris obviously enjoy the opportunity to play off of each other. Together, they provide an additional layer of comedy that perfectly complements the material. Dreyer plays with a lyrical touch and nuanced timing, often musically voicing the audience reaction to great affect.
The script, adapted from Nikolai Gogol's short story by David Holman, mixes metaphor, language and wordplay with ease, and is clearly understood and delivered with a deft touch by both actors. Director Philip Boehm and Scenic Designer Michael Heil deliver a briskly paced, visually memorable show that does justice to Gogol's original story, considered by many to be a masterpiece of the era
At the same time, many of the musings translate well to contemporary life. Poprishchin's musings on court decorum and etiquette are quite funny, and the relevance of his observations is remarkable, considering the original work was written in Russia, nearly two-hundred-years ago.
Upstream Theater's "Diary of a Madman" runs through October 20, 2013 at the Kranzberg Center for the Arts in Grand Center. For more information, call (314) 863-4999 or visit www.upstreamtheater.org.