The Diary of a Madman
I never used to understand coulrophobia, the irrational fear of clowns that’s milked for laughs on such shows as Modern Family. But seeing Geoffrey Rush’s clownlike performance as Poprishchin in an adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s The Diary of a Madman, I begin to comprehend the unsettling effect that clowns can have upon the psyche. Director Neil Armfield’s production, first mounted with Rush two decades ago in their native Australia and now running at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through March 12, is a riveting comic drama with some very dark undercurrents.
Poprishchin is a paper-pushing clerk whose appearance suggests a sad, 19th-century Bozo: He’s got a dark green velvet topcoat, an outrageous mass of red hair, bright green eye shadow, and an ink-stained nose. He spends his evenings in a leaky-roofed attic apartment colored in Fauvist shades of red, green, and yellow (the very ’80s-seeming set design is by Catherine Martin, Baz Luhrmann’s longtime companion and collaborator). As he ponders his unrequited affection for his boss’ lovely young daughter and grows increasingly unhinged, he’s visited by a young maid (a sterling Yael Stone), a foreigner from Finland whom Poprishchin has been educating in his native tongue. She becomes his foil — as does the clever two-piece musical ensemble, playing Mussorgsky-inflected melodies on violin and clarinet. Her outsider status also gives rise to some of the linguistic confusion (Finnish/finish, nose/noes) that fuels much of the first act’s punny humor.
As he demonstrated two years ago in his revival of Ionesco’s Exit the King, Rush is a superlative stage actor — and a gifted physical comedian. Rush rules the stage with utter fearlessness, shuttlecocking between low comedy and high tragedy with remarkable skill and bouncy energy. He is quite funny — though you never lose sight of the tragic humanity beneath the clowning. As the show’s second act makes clear, Poprishchin is not so unfamiliar a character, even as he imagines that he’s overheard the conversations of two dogs on the street (their names, improbably, are Fifi and Medji). As his grasp of language slips away (he begins one of his later diary entries ”Marchtober 86th”), Rush’s connection with the audience grows ever stronger. He reminds us that we too can become prisoners to our own delusions, remaking reality guided only by our own faulty sense of ourselves. A-
(Tickets: BAM.org or 718.636.4100)