Theater review: ‘Gogol Project’ at Bootleg Theater


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Russia has seen its share of puppet regimes, but nothing quite like Rogue Artists Ensemble‘s ‘Gogol Project’ at the Bootleg Theater. Combining masked performers, digital animation, immersive sound and music, and, of course, diverse styles of puppetry, this spectacular new piece deftly balances flights of whimsy and depths of darkness in three classic short stories by 19th century Russian writer Nikolai Gogol.

Visual invention dazzles the eye as director Sean T. Cawelti marshals a gifted design team to drive the storytelling. Puppet creators Brian White, Wes Crain and their cohorts earn co-equal billing with the performers. A towering bearded tailor who talks with a giant moving scissor mustache prepares the title life-changing garment for ‘The Overcoat’s’ office drone, (Kristopher Lee Bicknell); smaller-scale shadow puppets and hand puppets are also put to ingenious use.


For ‘The Nose,’ Pat Rubio’s masks and Kerry Hennessy’s costumes wittily animate the detached proboscis of a pompous bureaucrat (Tom Ashworth) as it assumes a respectable place in society, while his dog (expertly manned by puppeteer April Warren) trades hilarious love letters with another pooch. Above Katie Polebaum’s village set, a giant projected clock face mutates with increasingly sinister animations to reflect the mental unraveling of the ‘Diary of a Madman’ scribe (Ben Messmer).

Highly physicalized commedia-inspired performances complement the design flourishes, particularly from Estela Garcia’s pushy hat shop matron parading a cloth silhouette of her eligible daughter. Though the plots are easy to follow, some familiarity with the Gogol stories is helpful, if only to better appreciate the skill with which playwright Kitty Felde, using minimal dialogue, has woven them together (Ashworth’s nose-deprived official becomes the callous VIP to whom ‘The Overcoat’s’ wronged hero appeals in vain, while the official’s daughter (Audrey Moore) becomes the object of the ‘Madman’s’ romantic obsession).

Textual compromises are inevitable in this stylized presentation -- the surreal absurdity of some segments blunts the hard-hitting social realism in others, and more literary nuances do not lend themselves to broad caricature. But the trade-off is well worth the show’s immersion in sheer staging opulence and ingenuity.

-- Philip Brandes

*Updated: In an earlier version of this review, the actor playing the madman was misidentified as Don Allen, it should be Ben Messmer.

Gogol Project,’ Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 1. $25. (800) 838-3006. Running time: 2 hours.