A matched pair of solo shows interpreting 19th-century literary giants makes for a chewy evening of theater at the New Hazlett.
Diary of a Madman and “Poe’s Last Night” come courtesy of Atlanta’s Metropolis Theater. Madman, which adapts the famous Gogol story, stars Jon Hayden, an Atlanta-based Carnegie Mellon graduate with a long career in theater, film and TV; “Poe” is written by and stars Pittsburgh-based stage actor David Crawford.
The program begins with “Poe,” a 50-minute monologue set hours before the author was found dead, in Baltimore, in 1849. Tormented by real or imagined pursuers, slugging from a pint bottle of whiskey, Poe shares his tragic life story, which includes the death of both his birth mother and stepmother and forcible separation from the love of his life. And he links his sad biography to his brilliant writings: The showpieces are riveting full-text performances of “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Raven.” It’s easy to see why Crawford’s tour through Poe’s morbid imagination has been successfully staged at venues including Scotland’s famous Edinburgh Fringe.
In the tragicomic Madman, Hayden acts out the diary of Poprishchin, a lowly clerk in czarist Russia. Middle-aged but impecunious, over several months he is driven mad by his unrequited need for recognition and dignity, and by his impossible love for a beautiful aristocratic girl. Comic highlights, including Poprishchin’s dramatic reading of letters written by a dog, emphasize Gogol’s satire of the banality of aristocracy; Hayden reads them in falsetto, then critiques their style!
Madman seems challenging to adapt for the stage: Gogol’s original works because, as text, the humor is wonderfully ironic; Poprischin is both an unreliable narrator and our window into the absurdity of the world. The comedy turns tragic, but in a theater, confronted with the poor mad soul himself, it is much harder to laugh.
Still, Madman, directed by Prodan Dimov, ultimately works, with Hayden’s considerable energy putting across the humor on a stage over which loom four scrolls bearing the show’s complete text, hung four stories high.