In the midst of its season devoted to Russian classics, EgoPo Classic Theater scheduled a fund-raising cabaret that included an original staging of Nikolai Gogol’s short story, "The Nose."
This adaptation by 24-year-old company member Dane Eissler so impressed artistic director Lane Savadove that he hastily added two public performances. Eissler wrote the script, music, and lyrics (with Tyler Garamella), designed costumes, constructed a variety of noses, and directed the production. Audience members drank and ate Russian foods such as olad’ya (potato pancakes) and blintzes.
All in the timing
The immersive experience brought to mind the current Broadway musical Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, which sets Tolstoy’s War and Peace in an opulent Russian salon that fills its theater’s interior.
It was happily coincidental (or prescient) for EgoPo to plan a season devoted to Russian culture at a time when relations between the United States and Russia have become so tense. Its four productions provide insight into the culture of that nation, and — alone among the four — The Nose addresses the workings of the Russian government.
Gogol wrote about the bureaucracy of Czars Alexander and Nicholas and satirized St. Petersburg’s expanding nouveau riche society in which titles and uniforms were considered to be important. Dmitri Shostakovich turned it into an opera in 1928 that mocked the Stalinist government. Gogol’s story tells of a civil servant officer who awakens to discover that his nose has vanished. This literal loss-of-face is exacerbated when the man discovers that his nose is walking the streets dressed in a uniform superior to his own and is receiving governmental promotions. In Eissler’s translation, an appointment to head “an important government department” is at stake.
The title in Russian, "Nos,” is the reverse of the Russian word for "dream,” which justifies Eissler’s wild, imaginative, dreamlike staging of the protagonist’s desperate efforts to be reunited with his nose. The slapstick action swirls across a playing area adjacent to the dining tables, on the same level as the audience and involving the patrons.
Eissler’s music is a mix of old Russian balalaika and David Bowie, with ensemble opening and closing dance numbers. His dialogue includes calling the man’s butchered face “as flat as a potato pancake.” Many of the rhymes are intentionally corny, like “bon voyage, schnoz.”
A seven-piece band accompanied a large cast that included many of the cabaret’s waiters. Andrew Clotworthy, Kelly Filios, Jenna Kuerzi, Tori Mittelman, Michael Pliskin, Evan Raines, and Emily Schuman threw themselves into the main roles. When the nose took on a life of its own, an enormous proboscis covered Kuerzi’s head.
Eissler’s talents are prodigious and precocious. Nevertheless, one aspect of Gogol’s story should have received more attention. While the onstage characters were involved with a wacky romantic courtship and witchcraft, not enough scrutiny was given to confronting authority and to thwarting the machinations of government agents.
EgoPo’s Russian season started with Delirium, adapted from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It continues with Chekhov’s The Seagull, directed by Savadove in February, and Anna, a world premiere adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina by Brenna Geffers in March.