May 3, 2010

Lust, Bribes and Vodka

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Take lust, bribery and cabbage soup and spike them with some vodka and hellishly disgusting Russian wine and you have a delicious theatrical cocktail that’s guaranteed to please. The Schwartz Center’s spectacular performance of Nikolai Gogol’s classic The Government Inspector proved that with the help of sparkling wordplay and visual effects, even a feast of wongs can become an uproarious comedy. But “those who laugh the hardest will be laughing at themselves.”

Set over 160 years ago in czarist Russia, The Government Inspector is a standard comedy of errors in the tradition of Plautus or Oscar Wilde, following the story of a remote Russian town governed by greedy, ignorant fools who mistake Khlestakov (Myles Rowland ’11), a penniless, horny, self-absorbed pomp from St. Petersburg as a government inspector. The storyline is formulaic, but hilarious the interactions between characters are anything but predictable.

The storyline was not entirely original to Gogol. After abandoning a play in 1832 about the imperial bureaucracy in fear of censorship, Gogol wrote to his friend Pushkin, another great Russian writer, for ideas for a new comedy. Pushkin was allegedly mistaken for a government inspector in 1833, and wrote in his notes the skeleton of a story that is unmistakeably similar to The Government Inspector:  “Krispin arrives in the Province … to a fair — he is taken for [illegible] … The governor is an honest fool — the governor’s wife flirts with him — Krispin woos the daughter.”

When the play was published, Czar Nicholas I had just crushed the Decemberist revolution, a revolt led by a few aristocrats in an attempt to install Nicholas’ brother as the constitutional monarch. As a result, Nicholas decided to restrain Russian society and rule with staunch autocracy, enlisting a huge network of spies to help implement censorship in education, publishing and many aspects of daily life. Cheating and bribery became common practice to sustain and advance in political status, and people developed a sickeningly disoriented perspective on morality. Characters in the play act helplessly when the inspector refuses to take their bribes because they don’t know what else to do, but when the inspector says he will accept “loans” instead, knowing that the inspector won’t pay it back, the bribers are thrilled again. There was no need to refresh the play for a modern audience as some themes in human nature are evergreen.

The Jeffrey Hatcher adaptation didn’t intentionally try to modernize the play, and in absence of historical context, the play was still surprisingly lucid.  Gogol’s witty and zingy wordplay was preserved, and even the frivolous rhyme and meter of Khlestakov’s awful improvised love poems were translated. The dialogue is witty and fast-paced, and most characters moved in jerky motion or exaggerated comical stumbles. Photography first became available around the publication of The Government Inspector, and costume designor Sarah Bernstein was able to combine paintings, sketches and photos in her research to create costumes that are true to history, although artistic license was taken for comic purposes, such as the mayor’s fat wife who looks like “a lamp in a whorehouse,” or Dobchinsky and Bobchinsky, two clowns as wide as they are tall.

With a plot that can be summarized in one sentence, the play relied on comic timing and quirky banter to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. Much of the humor derived from the characters’ open embrace of moral flaws and their blatant inconsiderate attitude towards one another. When the fake inspector asks the mayor for the city’s goals, the mayor replies, “cut back on bureaucratic waste and fraud, no dead animals on the street and not too much public urination.” When a teacher is caught with three farm girls, the tenor section of a boy’s choir and a goat in the bathroom, the school principal has to write an apology for “not knocking.”

There are no heroes in the play, every character is consciously corrupted and proudly so. Even the judge bribes the Inspector. The schoolmaster burns books, the hospital employs a worthless foreign doctor whose motto is “let nachurrrr take its koarse,” and the mayor’s wife seduces the fake inspector while trying to convince him to marry her daughter. It’s hard to believe the the inspection will bring justice to the town. The play presents no real solutions to these social issues and everyone is okay with the obvious impending catastrophe. In the mean time, laughter is a good-enough answer.

The ensemble of students and professional actors delivered many memorable and powerful performances. Among the most memorable is the mailman, a minor character played by seasoned actor Jeffrey Guyton, who reads every letter that comes to him without shame. Previously seen as the macho, ruthless drill sergent in Biloxi Blues back in Feburuary, Guyton seamlessly transforms himself into an aging crook, hunched under a tattered coat and delighting in the emotional pain of others. Every one of his sparse lines is calibrated to perfection to tickle the audience.

Lead Rowland’s nuanced, ditzy and semi-psychotic Khlestakov is also brilliant and bursting with energy. Although Khlestakov is greedy and deceitful, Rowland’s performance captures the heart of the audience at the initial encounter. After the opening scene, Khlestakov wakes up in the middle of the night to wrestle a comically oversized rat the size of a pillow that was sitting on the window and proceeded to attempt to bite off his face when Khlestakov touched it. Then, depressed about his poverty, Khlestakov frantically tries to shoot himself with a pistol multiple times in increasingly amusing positions, but his hand on the trigger softens everytime he sees his reflection in the mirror. Startled by the entrance of his servant, his pistol misfires and a dead bird falls from the sky. All this was done through music, choreography and exaggerated facial expressions. Rowland’s flaming red hair helped, too.

Original Author: Lucy Li