The individual in isolation is a dangerous creature. The perusal of this animal sparked Nikolai Gogol’s short story in 1835 and now provides the raw material for Ilia Volok’s exploratory one-man show. After a critically acclaimed run in Los Angeles, “Diary of a Madman” is now playing at The American Theatre of Actors.
The journey of the show reveals the sanity within insanity and the power and fragility of the mind in solitude. Volok plays the delicate and rustic Poprishchin, a low-ranking clerical official who possesses a whimsical and eccentric mind. Feeding his own delusions, Poprishchin constructs a psychological palace for his thoughts shrouded within the romantic pursuit of the daughter of a senior official.
Poprishchin's thoughts echo ruminations that are very understandable, and the tragedy of the story comes not from his physical imprisonment, but his psychological one. Without knowing, the audience follows him step-by-step, arriving at madness with Poprishchin before separating themselves with thoughts of "I'm not mad, he's mad."
Ilia Volok did not disappoint. His fervor and curiosity captivated audience members as they forgot that he was the only person onstage. He displayed a hopeful hopelessness with a sense of humor that was delightful. Over the course of the 70 minutes, he conducted orchestras, danced to Spanish guitars, and scoured the personal diary of a dog. These moments counterpointed with the truthfulness in his discovery of heartbreak and his struggle of self-encounter and the harsh reality of existence. He perfectly captured the longing of an individual for importance and recognition. On the surface, this manifests as the desire for the love of a woman, but Poprishchin’s descent into madness peals back the layers to reveal a reality too intense to overlook—his own insignificance.
At times the lighting and sound brought an audience member out of the reality of the piece. There were initial moments when lighting flickered and sound effects sounded all-too-canned. When these aspects aligned, the experience was electric. The small space worked well for this particular production, and the set was sparse—a stool, a bucket, a couple of sheets, and bits of paper.
One beautiful aspect of the piece was the incorporation and transformation of the beginning melody of the aria “Una furtiva lagrima” (a furtive tear) from Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore. Poprishchin, like Nemorino in the opera, clings to small and seemingly ridiculous “signs” that provide him with the excuses to indulge in his own fantasies. The plaintive and beautiful song starts as a pleasant thought, but slowly becomes an ironic underscoring that is either pathetic or grotesque.
Audiences eager to marvel at the mind and chuckle at the fervent and heartbreaking ingenuity of Ilia Volok’s performance should catch this show at The American Theatre of Actors’ Beckmann Theater before it closes on November 12th.
DATES: October 24th through November 12th, 2017 (Tuesday through Friday)
VENUE: Beckmann Theater 314 W 54th Street, New York City 10019
Joanna Connolly is an excitable theatre-lover who adores books, fitness/nutrition, and having deep conversations about life. A performing artist who enjoys partaking of theatre as either audience member or performer, she admits that her passion for theatre sometimes verges on obsession. She loves long walks, getting lost in Russian novels, and spending time with her five other brothers and sisters.
For more information visit volok-diaryofamadman.weebly.com