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Echo Park

Rogue Ensemble’s The Gogol Project ~ Bootleg Theatre ~ Echo Park

12:24 PM PDT on September 27, 2009

Gogol Project 7

The Gogol Project ~ Bootleg Theater ~ 2220 Beverly Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90057 ~ Through November 1st

"We all come out of Gogol's overcoat." Thus spake Dostoevsky on the influence of Russian satirist Nikolai Gogol, whose best-known short stories  The Nose, The Overcoat, and Diary of a Madman act as the current inspirations for Rogue Ensemble, L.A.'s theater company that melds puppetry, digital and lighting effects, nostalgia-bent music box strains, and equal doses of realism and surrealism. Their current play, The Gogol Project, plays through November in Echo Park at Bootleg.

As Taco readers who have loved us long-time know, Russian theater as deconstructed by local company ARTEL is one of the most visceral, dangerous acts we've witnessed from the audience since the days of Jesus Lizard, redefining the boundaries of how live theater can engage us. Having felt the complete opposite about this summer's misguided Cherry Orchard adaptation at The Geer Theatre and only slightly enthusiastic about Rogue's trip to Neil Gaiman's Neverland in Mr. Punch, our jury entered the house already a little hung. Just to make it harder on Rogue Ensemble, we carried with us our very own Ukranian-born Russian, mirroring Gogol's heritage, though much better crafted in the cheekbone area.

Gogol Project 4

A rural lane splits Gogol Project's stage, flanked by small houses and shops on all sides. Rogue does remarkably quick work of plunking us into a small town, in this case Nevsky Prospect. A smattering of silent leads and grotesque citizens in porcine masks (one in a paper pertrushka head) fill the stage, centered around a giant clock, which serenely changes seasons and expressions throughout the action. Rogue takes pride in its sets and kooky visuals, and they've greatly upped the whimsy and fantasy from Mr. Punch to constant cool effect. The play deftly balances the real and fantastic at all times, always giving us something to concentrate on, big and small.

Gogol Project Bread

Rogue has found perfect material in Gogol, letting satire speak for itself in clean adaptations of his political stories. Instead of sticking firmly to the master's plots, the script weaves three stories together, Pulp Fiction-style. We meet Nevsky's residents, witches, and ghouls slowly, before following them to their cruel fates.

Gogol Project 2

Nevsky's highest-ranking, vain town official finds his own nose has escaped his face, King Missle-style, soon growing to man-sized proportions and donning a uniform, fast outranks the suffering sod. A poor man finds temporary fame in an gorgeous overcoat that soon brings him hauntingly to the afterlife. And in the play's most political number, a lonely, lowly worker cracks to regal illusions of grandeur, and though the town's citizens appear to prefer his rule, the ironclad hand of the powers that be fail to see it that way.

The tales are told simply and often sweetly, despite the horror that underlies their messages and story-lines. But being a Rogue production, the surface is even more compelling than the substance. A baker comes constructed out of pastries; two gabby mail carriers are a jumble of lost letters; a winter snow storm envelopes the entire theater; two dogs sing cheesy ballads and write love letters; puppets emerge in gigantic dimensions, right from a Julie Taymor version of the Star Wars cantina; or sometimes in simple, beautiful shadows. This is a multimedia stage show; half-real, half-imagined, pulled off perfectly through levers, hidden tracks, and an atmosphere of ghostly yesteryear. Rogue has more than successfully created its own world and space in time, both believably fun and scary. Even our Russian was scared by the spirit story. Do you know how hard it is to scare those people?

What didn't always work were the winks at the audience. A few intentionally silly moments (like the dog-love song) go on for too long, but are forgivable in a show where anything can and usually does happen. The silent leads were so compassionate and compelling that some of the voiced acting could be easily grating. One lead in particular spoke in such a chirpy Valley girl voice that every time she opened her mouth, Nevsky moved worlds away. It was a conscious choice, but greatly ineffective, making us feel like we were in a childrens' variety show on T.V. A British accent or maybe possibly even something Slavic might have done just fine.

Overall, and we are saving most of the surprises for those dropping $18-$25 a ticket (full disclosure: we went for free!), Gogol Project is fun and always very cool to look at. The stories are kept light, but their tragedies and small victories hit the heart heavily. It's a perfect show to be wowed at, laugh some, and even be a bit of a kid again. Gogol Project the production is not necessarily always as Russian in tone as the stories are.  Nevsky Prospect belongs to its own sadly sweet, psychedelic stretch of a fairy-tale Twilight Zone.

Friday's at 8:00pm, Saturday's at 3:00pm and 8:00pm and Sunday's at 3:00PM at 2220 Beverly Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90057. Reservations here.

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