DEAD SOULS at the Etcetera Theatre
“seventy minutes is simply not enough time to do Dead Souls justice”
This production of Gogol’s Dead Souls, adapted for the stage by Mikhail Bulgakov, and newly translated into English by Illya Khodosh, does not serve the great inventor of the Russian novel well. It is extraordinarily difficult to take a classic novel with a vast panorama of memorable characters, and turn it into a play with only three actors. So one has to admire the gutsiness of a company of recently graduated students from the United States on taking on Gogol, even with Bulgakov’s help. Hamzah Jhaveri, Dominic Sullivan and Nico Taylor, with Leo Egger as director, do their best to pack Gogol’s panorama into a carryon sized presentation suitable for the small stage at the Etcetera Theatre. But seventy minutes is simply not enough time to do Dead Souls justice.
The material for a good drama in Dead Souls is all there. Much like another of Gogol’s classic works, The Government Inspector, there is a con man at the heart of this satirical story. Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov is, like Khalestakov, an insignificant character in his own right. But when Chichikov descends on a small town, it soon becomes apparent that he, like Khalestakov, is just the most convincing con artist among an incredible assembly of con artists and gullible fools. Chichikov’s con gives the story its title, Dead Souls. The “dead souls” refer to the serfs, no longer living, but who are still a tax burden for landowners to whom they were bound. Chichikov visits each landowner, proposing that he buy up the dead souls, and take on the tax burden, as a favor. Chichikov’s plan is to buy up as many dead souls as he can, mortgage them to a bank, and so buy his way into society with an estate with its own (living) serfs. What could possibly go wrong?
In Gogol’s novel, this set up becomes a kind of picaresque journey in which Chichikov visits each landowner in turn, and proposes his swindle. It’s a leisurely trip where we get to know the characters intimately, and where we can take a little break before heading onto the next destination. In the seventy minute, three hander drama presented by Eno River Players and the Yale Bookends, we have no such luxury. Actors Jhaveri, Sullivan and Taylor proceed at a breakneck speed because they have to. There’s also a lot of set design bits and pieces for them to manoeuvre around on stage, and rearrange, while performing. This is distracting, particularly as one has to pay close attention to keep track of which character which actor has just switched into. Jhaveri, for all his versatility, plays all his characters, male and female, as some version of American camp. All that is Russian about them are their names. Nico Taylor’s Chichikov is not camp, but seems meek, apologetic even, in spite of the overreaching con man he is supposed to be. Dominic Sullivan backs up his fellow actors with a smaller number of roles, switching between a British or American accent with impressive, though inexplicable, accuracy. Each character, with the exception of Chichikov, lacks definition, which is a shame, as there are so many opportunities for rich, comic invention in each one. If the cast has time while still in London, I’d recommend a visit to Accidental Death of an Anarchist at the Haymarket, to see how it can be done.
Theatre goers short on time and curious about adaptations of Russian novels may be interested in this production of Dead Souls. It’s always worth making Gogol’s acquaintance. But for those with more time, settling down in a comfortable chair with a good translation of the original novel is highly recommended.
DEAD SOULS at the Etcetera Theatre
Reviewed on 3rd August 2023
by Dominica Plummer,
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