Arts Listings

‘Diary of a Scoundrel’ at Masquers

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Friday September 01, 2006

By Ken Bullock 


An ambitious young man from a ruined family of Russian gentry decides, in the decade after the freeing of the serfs in 1861, that the way to get on in the world is to milk the self-love of those in position, to listen to their inane chatter (everybody knows in Moscow people only talk, they don’t work), and not to speak his own sarcastic mind, just to commit his acid observations to his journal. 

Thus, Diary of a Scoundrel, the classic satire by Alexander Ostrovsky, now onstage at the Masquers Playhouse in Pt. Richmond. 

Aided and abetted by his widowed mother (Joyce Thrift) and their ex-serf manservant (Alex Shafer), Yegor (Ulysses Popple) launches his climb to the top, the first rungs being a government job and a socially advantageous betrothal. 

He begins by tricking the blustery Mamaev (John Hutchinson) into his squalid little apartment so the young man—a second cousin—can humbly ask his “uncle” for advice (with which the fatuous Mamaev’s overflowing) and insinuate himself into “uncle’s” professional life and contacts--as well as into the affections of lonely socialite “Auntie” Kleopatra (Adele Margrave). 

Posing as a pleasant young idiot (as everybody in Moscow knows that only the insipid and lazy are accorded respect), the scheming Yegor’s path upward seems almost too easy, as he finds himself ghostwriting speeches and articles for the doddering Kroutitsky (David J. Suhl) and the affable, opportunistic Gorodoulin (Mark Shepard), and supplants a hussar officer with an enormous shako (Paul J. White as another Yegor) in the affections of not so much the gushing, youthful Mashanka (Heather Morrison) as her superstitiously pious benefactress aunt Sofia with the wild past (Amy Landino), achieving his desirable engagement. 

But then again, there’s that diary with the caustic truth written in it floating around. 

The Masquers make hay with this surgical yet absurd satire, revving up a packed house into explosions of laughter as the Moscow hoi polloi go through the motions of their eccentric rituals, telling anybody who’ll listen (as well as talking to themselves) about their well-considered, off-the-wall “reasons” for their wildly askew way of life. 

Carlene Collier Coury and Marilyn Kamelgarn have co-directed a tight little show that makes use of a fine script and of the Masquers’ small, floor-level proscenium stage and apron/orchestra “pit” to spin out this droll tale of cupidity with an economy rare in community theater. 

They’ve been ably abetted by designers John Hull (set), Adam Fry (lights), Carol Wood (costumes) and Linda Bradshaw (properties--though a manilla envelope containing a suspiciously modern newspaper stands out strangely from the otherwise pleasant period feel of the show). 

The most successful feature is the portrayal of the grotesques that pass for characters. The younger folk are a little bland and flat, and 15-year-old Ulysees Popple, with a good look for the part, isn’t experienced enough vocally or in movement to more than pantomime and intone the mannerisms of a con-man who should syncopate his flagrant but deadpan trickery with peekaboo signs of malice. 

But the older folk he tricks are sharper in their turns and in the case of that fine actor John Hutchinson, delicious. His Mamaev textures the sound and the action with every feline movement and wide-eyed verbal absurdity. Joyce Thrift, Adele Margrave, Mark Shepard, and especially Amy Landino, add to this menagerie of caricatures, and Alex Shafer makes a nice routine of his other role, ostensibly a small one, of a disapproving butler announcing the constant arrival of conniving “holy” mendicants. 

Jo Lusk as an offbeat, drunken seeress, “free from the vanities of this world,” who stumbles in and out of the otherwise clockwork action, and C. Conrad Cady as genial blackmailer Golutvin, “a man without an occupation,” also deserve mention, adding their own flavor to this rich yet piquant borscht of a play. 

One only wishes they’d taken it a little farther. The director’s notes in the program mime surprise at a 19th century Russian comedy, but it all began with Gogol’s gargoyles and the early Dostoyevsky’s strange, funny creatures, who quickly found their way to the stage, culminating in the grotesque, often acrobatic “events” of Meyerhold in the 1920s. 

The complaint of many a Western audience, looking for the much-touted “realism” of Russian theater (and film) is a note of surprise, even shock, at the almost burlesque cartoonishness of the humor the actors bring to their characters. 

A bit more of this would’ve made for an even better ensemble feel to the Masquers’ show, more of a sense of culmination when each of the “wronged” blowhards explodes with outrage when the truth is put to them, and the cool con-man high-handedly dismisses them as hypocrites, himself the single honest man! 

But the Masquers have put together quite an evening of theater, with the true community spirit of contributions from all (a cast of 14 and staff and crew of more than a dozen), as so often, a very pleasant surprise from this little company that began in El Cerrito in 1955, and has been housed in Pt. Richmond for 45 years now, raving up an evening with a mock-serious cry of “Stupidity? That’s nonsense!” 


Diary of a Scoundrel runs through Sept. 30 at the Masquers Playhouse,105 Park Place, Richmond. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2:30 p.m. Tickets $15. For more information, call 232-4031.