Not only is this production’s approach to Bulgakov’s source material refreshing in its directness, it’s also bursting with visual and auditory inventiveness.
Dead Man’s Diary: A Theatrical Novel by Mikhail Bulgakov. Directed by Igor Golyak. Adapted and staged by Arlekin Players Theatre at 368 Hillside Avenue, Needham, MA, through June 4.
By Erik Nikander
The words “Enter if you dare” flashed on the flat-screen TV mounted in the Arlekin Players Theatre lobby. Moments later, audience members were led into the performance area to see the company’s staging of Dead Man’s Diary: A Theatrical Novel. After we were seated around what looked like an immense black shipping crate, the initial warning began to make sense. Through square viewing holes in the side of the box, one could see a man slumped over lifelessly on a bed, surrounded by men and women in dark coats and hats. Was this a theater performance? It looked more like some sort of bizarre public wake — we seemed to be peering into an aquarium of despair.
The man on the bed soon gets to his feet, though his life hardly gets easier from there. He is Sergey Maksudov, a lonely writer whose latest novel has been ignored by the literary world. Desperate for his work to reach some sort of readership, he adapts it into a play, and is delighted when the script attracts the interest of one of Russia’s leading theater companies. Of course, the stage world has a number of oppressive trials in store for Maksudov, thrusting him into a Faustian labyrinth in which censorship, contract disputes, and inflated egos abound.
Dead Man’s Diary is based on a novel by Russian novelist and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov, whose works only gained world renown after his death. He also worked frequently with the Moscow Art Theatre; much of the satire of the theater world in the latter half of the play is drawn from Bulgakov’s clashes with Stanislavski and other legends of the Russian stage. David Gamarnik as Maksudov brilliantly channels the spirit of an embattled struggling writer, alternately beaten down and fuming with rage when confronted with preening personalities and clumsy artistic failures. Though he is clearly drawn to the imaginative possibilities of theater, Maksudov feels little warmth toward its backstage intrigues and business machinations. Arlekin Players dramatizes the character’s disdain for the bottom-line realities of theater production without flinching, refusing to shy away from the blackness and bleakness of Bulgakov’s vision.
Not only is this production’s approach to Bulgakov’s satire powerfully direct, it’s also bursting with visual and auditory inventiveness. The seemingly boundless creativity of director Igor Golyak and his artistic team makes it easy to be swept up in Maksudov’s passion and pain. Nikolay Simonov’s scenic design and Stephen Petrelli’s lighting work combine to create a dense visual atmosphere. The opening scenes are flooded with a harsh white light and blanketed in thick shadows; Maksudov’s brooding is set amid the haunting chiaroscuro of a German Expressionist film. Jakov Jakoulov’s stirring, often purposefully discordant original music is interwoven with the sound effects generated by the hands and mouths of the actors. The result is a disquieting symphony that conveys Maksudov’s creative torment.
Those who don’t speak Russian, like this critic, will have to rely on a live audio translation to understand the dialogue. At times, this audio feed is drowned out by the sound design, but that doesn’t sully the creative richness and meaning of the piece. For instance, Simonov’s props suggest a nonsense-logic; every paper object on stage, from contracts and scripts to the notes scattered around Maksudov’s apartment, is black. It is as if they’d been burned in a fit of rage by an anguished writer. The desk of the theatre company’s strange, crablike secretary is covered with typewriters. But there’s no paper in these machines, and the cords from her phones lead nowhere. One line hangs from the ceiling — perhaps a symbol of the disconnected sensibility of the theatre business. Even the creative flourishes that don’t make much sense, such as the aforementioned secretary’s frenetic dance number at the end of act one, are so captivating and fun to watch that it’s easy to cast reason aside.
It’s unfortunate, then, that the originality of Dead Man’s Diary fades somewhat during act two. At this point, the play concentrates on lampooning theatrical personalities. The tone becomes much drier; the narrative still exhibits the dark wit that helped make the first act so compelling, but the exuberance of the lighting and sound design is cut back. The staging doesn’t venture beyond conventional sensory territory. If this stylistic shift was a deliberate choice, it’s hard to tell exactly what it was meant to achieve. The second act of this “theatrical novel” feels like a different play entirely, more an absurd comedy of manners than a head-spinning study of the torments of a writer.
By the final scenes of the play some of the staging brilliance that made act one so memorable return. This is a welcome transformation, only slightly soured by the fact that the play ends shortly afterward, bringing the odyssey of Maksudov to an abrupt halt. Yes, Dead Man’s Diary wasn’t completed before Bulgakov’s death, so the lack of dramatic closure is understandable. Still, given that the production is characterized by such boldness and imaginative panache, it would have been more satisfying for the Arlekin Players to take a risk and go for a gutsier finale. Nonetheless, though it doesn’t quite sustain the emotional intensity and inventive showmanship that makes its first half so unforgettable, Dead Man’s Diary: A Theatrical Novel remains a gripping experience. New England theatre-goers seeking a strange new adventure should not let this one pass them by.
Erik Nikander is a critic, playwright, and filmmaker based in the New England area. His film criticism can be read on Medium and his video reviews on a variety of topics can be viewed on Youtube at EWN Reviews.