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The Overcoat at A.C.T.

If You've Got It, Flaunt It

Russian dramatist Nikolai Gogol's short story "The Overcoat" is a cautionary tale of mystical and fantastic proportions, centered on the dreary life of a low-class man. In keeping with the naturalist oeuvre of his literary counterparts, Gogol infused the tale with Dickensian details of the quotidian -- minutiae that served his leitmotif of toilsome monotony and culture-specific oppression.

The dramatic version of the tale, co-created by Morris Panych and Wendy Gorling, strips Gogol's particularities of form into a metaphoric, and indeed metaphysical, experience of sublimity and madness. "The Overcoat" transforms the tale of a non-descript Everyman teased and exiled by his co-workers into an artful, poignant sequence of light and movement. In this version of the tale, the main character (a tormented protagonist known as the Man, and brilliantly played by actor Peter Anderson) receives his apotheosis when he decides in a last-ditch effort to buy a new overcoat, a demonstration in haute couture that can only be described as "fabulous".

Anderson's portrayal of the Man is both lugubrious and uplifting. He's a shabby-looking fellow with flyaway hair and hyperbolic gestures, who skillfully evokes the sad clown comportment of a Charlie Chaplin or Roberto Benigni. Pursued relentlessly by an amorous yet unsavory landlady and beleaguered by browbeating co-workers and a crotchety boss, the Man is the quintessential underdog -- a brilliant artist (an architect reviled for drafting perfect plans) on the very rim of the society he inhabits.

When the Man decides to turn in his tattered overcoat for a new one -- a flamboyant eggplant-colored wrap with a fox-trim collar -- he literally elicits a physical reaction from his lackluster colleagues, whose spastic gestures give them the appearance of being forcefully sucked into technicolor when they see him. While such an ostentatious display of savoir-faire enchants those around him, the Man's transformation has little to do with viewing himself as an object of desire. Unfazed, he ignores the advances of mysterious vamps and viragos, instead, his sexual interest seems to be altogether inverted, and his transformation descends into a self-masturbatory display of bravura that has woeful consequences.

This is a performance so distinct that it's difficult to categorize. It doesn't have the pronounced choreographic desideratum of dance; and because the 22-actor ensemble communicates through gesture rather than language, perhaps the show's only comparable genre is silent film. The lushness of the production is nearly cinematic; the two-story set is full of sepia-toned monoliths, the rhythmic cadence of moving wheels, and chiaroscuro lighting that recalls the early era of the silver screen. The preoccupation with mechanical objects and technology that was so preeminent in films like Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times is brilliantly portrayed in "The Overcoat". Employees undeviatingly make their ways to the office, by foot or by train; and sweatshop laborers vigorously pump the pedals of their sewing machines -- while winding staircases, pillars of buildings, and mammoth contraptions glide self-indulgently across the stage. Even the supertitles that introduce the performance at the beginning evoke the classic glamour of silent films, which is continuously punctuated with widened eyes, exaggerated grace, and the slinky advance-and-retreat motions of the actors. The musical accompaniment of composer Dmitri Shostakovich, an arrangement of 17 excerpts that swings from dulcet to cacophonous, creates a seamless narrative cadence that mesmerically evokes the emotional tenor of silent film.

One of the only weaknesses of the performance is that the weight of the dramatic moment can be onerous. It's an Everyman story with a meandering route. This could be bearable for a regular play, but in this case, the stage is too often flooded with a menagerie of details that flickers momentarily before being enshrouded in total darkness. Unlike the intimate vantage point of cinema, which creates the semblance of prolonged close contact with characters and settings, "The Overcoat" staggers in its too-muchness. Wordless performances are best conveyed through close-ups or immaculate choreography -- "The Overcoat" is at its best when the spectacle is nearly balletic, creating a uniform field of vision that doesn't require attention to detail. However, the production cannot be aptly described as dance; and indistinct sequences of slinky prostitutes, asylum inmates, and almost-offstage altercations make complete absorption of the scene frustratingly impossible, even when it is stylishly choreographed.

Given the vacillation between rhythm (enacted in the machines that inhabit the performance) and discord, the subtext of the show seems to be the inner life that is enacted in the shadows, which only blooms when order and routine are violently disrupted. It's a tale that takes place in embryonic darkness; indeed, images of fertility and sexuality are continuously played out in the various prostitute characters that shimmy like specters around the stage. "The Overcoat" has much to do with desire, and it's a performance fraught with sexual anxiety. However, in the universe the man inhabits, the possibility of meaningful relationships -- even purely physical ones -- is non-existent because of his total estrangement from other people. Desire, obsession, loneliness, and madness are emotions that only occur in the voluptuous folds of the Man's inner life. His final appearance is undeniably fetal; and in the show's moving climax, the overcoat can be seen as an inchoate symbol of nakedness—the vulnerable soul laid tragically bare.

"The Overcoat" plays through September 25. Tickets are $25-80.