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