Clothes unmake the man

Van Opera premieres witty reimagining of Gogol tragi-farce "The Overcoat"

Holy haberdashery! Everybody wants a ride on Akakiy Akakievitch's coat-tails. Photo: Dahlia Katz

Vancouver Opera (VO.) bills its new premiere of The Overcoat as a “musical tailoring.” The James Rolfe/Morris Panych collaborative production fits its eponymous source text, Nikolai Gogol’s 1842 masterpiece short story, like a bespoke garment, snugly enfolding all the original ironies in new and beguiling textures.

But what contrary stitchery! It’s as though the clothiers decided to start with the cuffs and collar, next baste in the lining and only then attach the final gabardine. Author/director Panych first conceived The Overcoat kinetically, in broad – almost clownish – gesture as a physical theatre piece some 20 years ago, choreographed by movement director Wendy Gorling.

Gorling returns to the current production in the same role. Except this time, in addition to a pair of voiceless mimes, she marshals 11 powerfully vocalizing singer/actors.

The words that Panych, the librettist, puts in their mouths remain true to the speaking style of the story’s protagonist, one Akakiy Akakievitch, a lowly bureaucratic office flunky. As described by Gogol, this quavering soul “expressed himself chiefly by prepositions, adverbs, and scraps of phrases … never completing his sentences.”

Such tentative half-utterances well suit the light, “chamber opera” touch of Rolfe’s score, which gently limns the text with a stripped-down 12 member ensemble of the V.O. orchestra under the baton of its associate conductor, Leslie Dala. The open-ended ellipses leave ample scope for physical theatre to deliver “punchlines” in movement, rather than speech.

And the maundering libretto perfectly captures our hero’s half-baked speculations about order and chaos, honour and identity, solitude and collegiality. For, compared with the Gogol original, Panych’s Akakiy has a notably more philosophical bent, however inchoate.

For one thing, the opera transforms Gogol’s humbly plodding scrivener into a numerically obsessed accountant. Baritone Geoffrey Sirett brilliantly portrays him with the wide-eyed bafflement of a back-office quant jock.

This cluelessness leaves him impervious to the lascivious advances of his borscht-proffering landlady, mezzo Andrea Ludwig, the only character onstage who – after her raunchy fashion – cares for him at all. On the other hand, he’s wide open to the taunts of his boss (baritone Peter McGillivray) and assorted office mates. His workaholic zeal wins no plaudits, while his threadbare cloak invites endless scorn.

With the onset of Russian winter comes a devastating diktat from the irascible tailor upstairs (again played by the polymath McGillivray): Akakiy’s tattered cloak is beyond repair. No choice but to scrimp unbearably for a custom-made new one.

But that dear-bought new Overcoat soon takes on a life of its own – quite literally, in a masterstroke of physical theatre staging. Like an angel from on high, it descends from the tailor’s loft straight into Akakiy’s waiting arms for a lyrical waltz across the stage.

And, when he wears it into work the next day, the erstwhile office schlub becomes the focus of fawning attention. Drunk on his new-found celebrity – not to mention multi-flutes of champagne at his boss’s Name Day soiree – Akakiy stumbles back home across a slummy no-man’s land, only to wind up rolled, robbed and stripped of his precious Overcoat.

His bid for redress gets nothing but obfuscatory rigmarole from a pair of precinct cops and a haughty, umbrageous dismissal from a high-ranked police Personage (McGillivray, again). Back home, even his landlady’s borscht fails to revive his swoon.

So there’s no choice left but to cart him off to a quiet oasis where white-clad votaries glide smoothly about their private, inscrutable missions. There, his fellow-inmates silently applaud as Akakiy is fitted again with a new, transforming garment that makes him once more (at least in his own mind) the cynosure of all eyes.

This time it’s a shorter coat with outsized sleeves that are sewn closed at the cuff and tied tightly together behind his back. The whole ensemble further reinforced with stout, canvas straps – a handsome, bespoke straightjacket.

Costume designer Nancy Bryant has been hinting at this denouement from the very beginning, with a pair of voiceless mimes and a trio of Greek chorus style commentators flitting intermittently onstage, all togged in madhouse whites. Even the rest of the period-costumed cast is daubed in luridly pale-faced maquillage with charcoal-smudged eye sockets and hennaed facial hair. And by the final scene, Bryant has everyone fitted out with blanched and starchy hospital gowns.

Set designer Ken MacDonald, Panych’s creative and conjugal partner, provides a luminously flexible backdrop of moveable glass panels that can morph into anything from a trolley-tramcar to a windswept plaza to a tenement garret to a midnight cop shop to a bourgeois salon to a lunatic asylum – all without missing a beat of the 80-minute score.

Panych, in the program notes, characterizes the opera as a satire on the idea that our outer integument can "transform our lives, make us glamourous and happy." The latter day analogue, he suggests might be "social media, which offers people a chance at becoming an overnight sensation...massively inflating their egos and then destroying them a few seconds later."

And your Facebook avatar won't even keep you warm against the winter.

The Overcoat was co-commissioned by V.O. and Toronto’s Tapestry Opera. It was co-produced by Tapestry along with Canadian Stage and opened in Toronto a month ahead of its Vancouver debut. It runs here at the Vancouver Playhouse through May 12th.

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