Reviewed by Judy Richter
"The Overcoat," co-created and directed by Morris Panych and Wendy Gorling, is an innovative blend of theatrical elements -- movement, mime, music -- that enact a short story by Russian author Nikolai Gogol. Set to recorded music by Dmitri Shostakovich with no spoken text, the 85-minute, two-act work was commissioned and premiered by the Canadian Stage Company in Vancouver in 1997 and has been seen around the world. All of its actors have been with it for a long time, some since the beginning. Now it's in San Francisco under the auspices of American Conservatory Theater.
"The Overcoat" tells the story of The Man (Peter Anderson, who originated the role), an everyman who lives in a spartan room in a boarding house and works in an architectural office, where his colleagues constantly torment him. His situation changes after he has a tailor make him a beautiful new overcoat. Despite his improved external status, however, he drinks too much at a company party one night and sets the stage for his downfall and ultimate madness.
Anderson and the other 21 actors, who play a variety of roles, are marvelous physical actors, precisely moving in time to the music and creating sharply defined characters. In a way it's like watching a silent movie. In fact, it's introduced with the title and other key information projected onto a scrim as The Man begins his day. Then the scrim rises to reveal more of Ken MacDonald's two-level set with its translucent panels backlit in Alan Brodie's lighting design. Costumes are by Nancy Bryant, who gives the people who move set pieces white outfits reminiscent of those seen in an insane asylum. They're an apt foreshadowing of what's to come.
Act 1 ends on a high note with The Man joyfully dancing with his new coat. Act 2 finds him going to his office and finding things are much better for him, but they deteriorate after that. This act also has a few scenes that seem to drag because of repetition, as if the creators were vamping until the end of a particular piece of music.
Otherwise, "The Overcoat" is generally fascinating. It certainly was well received at its opening night.