Send in the clowns (and the shrinks, too)

Quintessence Theatre's "Diary of a Madman'

5 minute read
Fredrick: Laughing with him or at him?
Fredrick: Laughing with him or at him?
Aksentii Poprishchin is a lowly clerk whose preoccupation with his diary is rivaled only by his fantasies about his boss's daughter and his obsession with intercepting and studying love letters he believes are being passed between two dogs. Oh yes, and in the end, he thinks he's the King of Spain. But who among us has not allowed our fantasies and obsessions to get the best of us from time to time?

This initially familiar, but increasingly outrageous character occupies the heart of Nikolai Gogol's 1835 short story, "Diary of a Madman." David Holman adapted the story for the stage in 1989, originally for Sydney's Belvoir Theater and the actor Geoffrey Rush.

Quintessence Theater Group's production distinguishes itself by introducing a MacBook and webcam into the story, an anachronistic move that suggests Gogol's 19th-Century civil servant is also a blogger. It's a provocative directing decision by Alex Burns that attempts to make a classic work more relevant for contemporary audiences.

Humanity negated

After all, Gogol's story is about a bureaucrat whose descent into madness and removal to an asylum is punctuated in the end by what modern psychiatry would term "delusions of grandeur"— he mistakes himself for the heir to the empty Spanish throne. Now that all of us can publicize our innermost thoughts simply by updating our Facebook profile, aren't we all just as confused about who the real celebrities are?

The concept for the Quintessence staging is rich, but rather than creating a blogging Poprishchin with whom we can all identify, the production's rendering of "mental illness" negates the humanity in the madman at its center.

Holman's Poprishchin is first and foremost a clown. His hair is described as straw-like, sticking out at the sides of his balding head. By the second act he dons a red nose, bloodstained from a dog bite. When Geoffrey Rush reprised the role at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2011, he wore near-white face paint and green eye shadow.

Clowns vs. shrinks

The Diary of a Madman is not an attempt at realism, but that doesn't mean Poprishchin's mania and confusion can't ring true in a broader sense. Even in his idiosyncrasy, Poprishchin should resonate as an everyman. We should be able to relate to him, as we should to all clowns: not in spite of his foibles but because of them. Clowns are characters, not acronyms to be found in the pages of the DSM, the diagnostic manual known as psychiatry's bible.

As a cultural practice, clowning outdates modern psychiatry by a few thousand years. This makes clowning an apt mechanism for Holman's stage adaptation of Gogol's classic story. If we could reduce the practice of clowning to an argument about human nature, the clown would likely say that we are all ridiculous and we are all irreducibly unique in our deficits. In this way, clowning contains within it a critique of the asylum of Gogol's time as well as our own.

But Quintessence's Poprishchin is so aggressively Other that he becomes impossible to identify with. Daniel Fredrick's portrayal may indeed be "compelling" (in the words of critic Tim Dunleavy, writing for Talkin' Broadway), but it's not compassionate. Compassion, and with it identification, matters in this play, and in clowning in general. When the audience is alienated from Poprishchin, we are also alienated from the idea of madness itself, and from our ability to laugh at it.

Silence in the audience

This point was observable at a recent performance in which Fredrick took three pratfalls in the play's first scene, all of which played to relative silence. But to Quintessence's credit, the play's litany of similarly ambiguous moments demands a creative team willing to make bold decisions about when the audience is expected to laugh or to cry. Walking this fine line is an enormously brave undertaking for any theater company.

Director Alex Burns does attempt to build a connection between his audience and his main character by putting the classic story in conversation with familiar issues in new media. Is there any reason, Burns asks in his director's notes, "that the most psychologically disturbing videos in which individuals unwittingly create comedy through self-humiliation get the most hits?"

My own answer to Burn's astute observation is that the unwitting clowns of the Internet are subject to the alienation inherent to that medium— they can't see us and we can't see them. We laugh at them, not with them. But the laughter brought on by the stage clown arises from intimacy, not alienation. The clown often sees his audience and connects with them. We laugh with the clown at the foibles we easily recognize as our own.

Surely every audience member in the Sedgwick Theatre's packed house has found himself at one time or another lost in his imagination, electronically assisted or otherwise. We dream, as Poprishchin does, of the day our boss will lavish us with praise or the moment the attractive object of our affection will finally succumb to our embrace. We are most of us little more than lowly clerks, obsessively updating our Facebook status to feed our eager, if imagined, fans. Therein lies this production's closer truth as well as its funnier and more chilling reality.

What, When, Where

The Diary of a Madman. By David Holman; Alex Burns directed. Quintessence Theatre Group production through March 10, 2013 at Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave. (877) 238-5596 or

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