Sunday, April 20, 2014
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Review The Diary of a Madman

The Diary of a Madman, by Nikolai Gogol, adapted by David Holman, Neil Armfield and Geoffrey Rush, reviewed by Wendy Rosenfield. Produced by Quintessence Theatre Group, directed by Alexander Burns, featuring Daniel Fredrick, Rachel Brodeur and Jamison Foreman.

Review The Diary of a Madman

By Wendy Rosenfield

For the Inquirer

All season I’ve been mourning Philadelphia’s loss of the Barrymore Awards and their formal recognition of this region’s theatrical excellence. So in their memory (and this production’s delusional spirit), I nominate Quintessence Theatre Group’s The Diary of a Madman, an adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s satirical short story, in whatever categories it would have qualified: best actor, director, production, music, actress. Whatever.

This isn’t a perfect production, and we’ll get to that, but it is brave, bold and affecting, with a central performance (in a two-person cast, sort of) by Daniel Fredrick, as gangly, combed-over, disgruntled clerk Aksentii Poprishchin, that begins with several pratfalls and never lets up in intensity, not once, through two full, emotionally exhausting acts. Joining Fredrick, Rachel Brodeur transforms as Tuovi, Poprishchin’s devoted, unappreciated Finnish servant; Sophia, the boss’ beautiful daughter and object of Poprischin’s obsession; and later, a distraught asylum inmate. 

Also present, at least peripherally, is pianist Jamison Foreman, playing a score by David Cope that accents Poprishchin’s flights of fancy and fantasy with a mix ranging from classical to contemporary composer Danny Elfman (via Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure).

The adaptation may be written by David Holman with Neil Armfield and Geoffrey Rush, but Alexander Burns’ direction takes ownership here, both for better and for worse, with nods to Beckett in Poprishchin's and Tuovi’s clownish, see-sawing relationship, and to technology’s place in both isolating us and providing artificial means of confession and connection.

Thus Poprishchin often addresses a laptop computer, with images from his webcam projected on either side of the stage. It’s a solid impulse, this connecting of the dots from Gogol’s time to ours, and one that Rush noted in interviews, but it’s also the least interesting part of the production and the way it’s presented, an anachronism that never quite resolves. Besides, who wants to suffer the computer’s glitchy video when Fredrick offers so much real-life manic magnetism?

Gogol’s Poprishchin is a clown in the classic sense, a tragic hero whose red nose isn’t made of greasepaint but of blood and raw skin, the result of a dog bite. He can’t navigate human communication, so instead seeks the correspondence of dogs, and fails there as well. One of the play’s most heartbreaking moments arrives when Poprishchin intercepts a letter he imagines describes the dogs feasting on “woodcock and sauce,” while he, alone in his garret, starves. He never makes the connection; we do. Thanks to Quintessence’s fascinating production, attention must be paid to Gogol’s work and Poprishchin's fate. 

Playing at: Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave. Through Mar. 10. Tickets: $10 to $30. Information: 877-238-5596 or www.QuintessenceTheatre.org

About this blog
Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer. She also is a contributing writer for Variety and American Theatre magazine. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of four books about four playwrights (Rabe, McNally, Miller, Albee), and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). Her 'weekend' job as a travel writer provides adventure: dogsledding in the Yukon, ziplining in Belize, walking coast-to-coast across England, and cowboying in the Australian Outback.


Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.


Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.


Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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