Geoffrey Rush’s command of English can be appreciated in his Oscar-nominated performance in “The King’s Speech.”
To see his impeccable impersonations of an unctuous cricket, a tea-swilling cow and a food-crazed lapdog, you’ll have to make your way to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where he’s giving a towering performance in Nikolai Gogol’s acid-black comedy, “Diary of a Madman.”
Rush’s crazed nobody of a civil servant stops mid-sentence to produce the insect’s sound. Fluttering tendril-like fingers, he takes his time, losing himself in a brief, musical reverie of barely audible cricket-speak before snapping back to what passes for reality in the transfixing tale.
Gogol’s satirical novella about the unraveling of a “clerk of the ninth grade” in czarist Russia unfolds as a harrowing descent from bellicose anonymity into bug-eyed, delusional schizophrenia.
Poprishchin (Rush) is a paper pusher and quill sharpener living in a filthy garret. At first, he’s fine company, railing against the unseen landlady and bantering with his mostly uncomprehending Finnish servant girl Tuovi (Yael Stone, a brilliant natterer and physical comedienne) about French fashion hegemony and the conspiracy of “Mohammedans” to take over the world. At times, it’s hard to believe Gogol wrote this nearly two centuries ago.
Starving for want of food, warmth, acknowledgment, he stalks the beautiful daughter of his bureaucrat boss. Eventually, he converses with her dog in an effort to learn her mistress’s secrets.
In blue eye shadow and red lipstick, bewigged with a shock of red hair like a character out of Dr. Seuss, Rush is a miserable clown. Poprishchin finally steals the newspapers lining Fifi’s quarters to read her intimate “letters” to another dog. What begins as a loopy comic interlude quickly careens into hallucinogenic craziness.
Two musicians, Paul Cutlan and Erkki Veltheim, abet the narrative on guitar, saxophone, violin, percussion, gong and other instruments as Poprishchin writhes in a tightening knot of poverty, fantasy and uselessness. Convinced he is the king of Spain, he rules only a squalid asylum for the insane.
Adapted by David Holman (with Rush and Belvoir company director Neil Armfield), “Madman” finds perfect squalor in Catherine Martin’s dingy sky-lit setting, drenched in shadow and light by designer Mark Shelton. The grimy tatters -- transformed at one point into a royal robe that captures the totality of Poprishchin’s disconnect -- are by Tess Schofield. But this deranged king’s mind-snapped speech belongs essentially to Rush, who is not one to rest on his laurels, royal or otherwise.
Through March 12 at Bam’s Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St., Brooklyn. Information: +1-718-636-4100; http://www.bam.org Rating: ****
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(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)