Review: THE OVERCOAT: a musical tailoring

by Lynn on April 6, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Based on a short story by Nikolai Gogol

Music by James Rolfe

Libretto and direction by Morris Panych

Set by Ken MacDonald

Costumes by Nancy Bryant

Lighting by Alan Brodie

Movement by Wendy Gorling

Conducted by Leslie Dala

Cast: Aaron Durand

Colin Heath

Erica Iris Huang

Keith Klassen

Andrea Ludwig

Peter McGillivray

Meher Pavri

Magali Simard-Galdes

Geoffrey Sirett

Asitha Tennekoon

Giles Tomkins

Caitlin Wood

First this was a movement-dance piece that has been reworked into an opera. It’s a bracing new presentation about a life of loneliness, obsession and how clothes don’t necessarily make the man.

The Story. Akakiy Akakievitch Bashmatchkin lived a lonely, solitary life.  He was a lowly bookkeeper in a big office. His smarmy fellow bookkeepers bullied him and made fun of him because he was so hard working and especially because of his ratty overcoat. Then his boss rewarded him for his diligence and gave him a bonus. Akakiy took the money and had an overcoat made to measure. It changed his life and outlook.

The Production.  A production of The Overcoat  last played at Canadian Stage in 2007 with Morris Panych directing and Ken MacDonald doing the set. It was a mime/dance piece with Wendy Goring doing the movement. It was cast with actors and performers.  The music was by Dmitri Shostakovich.

The same group has joined together again only this time the piece is an opera with the wonderful title: The Overcoat: a musical tailoring.  James Rolfe wrote the music. Morris Panych wrote the libretto and directed again. This time it was cast with singers who could handle the operatic nature of the music as well as act. Because opera is not my forte I will be commenting only on the acting, direction, production etc.

Again, Panych has created the sweep and bustle of the world Akakiy lives in. He rushes to get to work, bumped and pushed by those also rushing to get to work. People stand, bop and sway, as they stretch one arm up holding up a pole that is parallel to the floor, and voilà we are watching people on a tram.

Akakiy (Geoffrey Sirett) is lost in thought in his ever-present notebook. He writes down numbers. He is consumed by them; mystified and mesmerized by their precision. It is this meticulous attention to numbers that makes him a diligent employee. His colleagues make fun of him and chide him for making them look bad—they are lazy louts. But Petrovich, the Head of the Department (an imperious, self-satisfied Peter McGillivray) gives him a bonus as thanks that Akakiy will now use to have a glorious overcoat made.

When he gets the new overcoat Geoffrey Sirett as Akakiy suddenly looks up from his book and notices life around him. He preens. He struts. He dances with his coat as he would with a lover.  He is proud of himself and confident for the first time, or as confident as an insecure man can be. Those around him change too. They don’t chide him. He is now one of them. They sidle up to him, include him in their circle, ply him with champagne. That’s his undoing.

Panych directs the cast of singes as he would any actor, in a way that serves the libretto/opera. Geoffrey Sirett captures and conveys Akakiy’s many emotions and the sides to his life. He is a man bewildered by the world around him and the people in it. He finds comfort and solace in the rigor of numbers. They are mysterious and yet simple. They either add up or they don’t.

Ken MacDonald’s set of floating screens at the back suggest an office that perhaps has seen better days. The screens are composed of squares, some of which are boarded up and some are transparent, as if made from glass. Could the boarded up squares mean that the glass was broken out? Simple set pieces are quickly moved on and off by dazed characters wearing white garb that is too small. They look like they might be from a mental institute. Is this foreshadowing? The movement is swift, jarring and almost balletic. Akakiy’s landlady, played by Andrea Ludwig is a slinky, slip-wearing, cigarette-smoking seductress who fancies Akakiy and he shies away, afraid.

Gogol’s original story is dark, oppressive and swirls along. The production captures that sense, along with a certain gloomy humour.

Comment.  Morris Panych’s libretto is clever, sharp and as pristine as a number. Akakiy is diligent in writing his numbers down to come to an equation to solve a problem. The libretto illuminates a man obsessed with the clarity of a number, how the numbers repeat themselves and how they carry him along to the inevitable conclusion.

It’s a work of grandness about a man who is anything but. It is in no way sentimental but it is heartbreaking. Terrific piece of theatre.

Canadian Stage in a co-production with Tapestry Opera and Vancouver Opera.

Opened: March 29, 2018.

Closes: April 14, 2018.

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes. Approx.


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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Ronald Kaplan April 7, 2018 at 10:18 pm

Dear Ms S
It is sad but slow also and only periodically witty