The Government Inspector boasts some strong performances
Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher, from the play by Nikolai Gogol. Directed by David Mackay. A Studio 58 production. At Studio 58 on Tuesday, November 20. Continues until December 2
It’s well-performed, but not very funny.
Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector is widely regarded as a comic classic. In 1836, its satire of bureaucratic corruption was so controversial that Czar Nicholas I had to intervene to make sure the play’s premiere wasn’t shut down: always a good sign. And the script’s structure is often imitated—on everything from Fawlty Towers to Gilligan’s Island.
Thinking in terms of Fawlty Towers helps: the play feeds on absurdity, and its execution requires performances of enormous eccentricity and inventiveness.
In The Government Inspector, a rumour spreads through a small Russian town that one of the czar’s inspectors is travelling from community to community incognito. The town’s bureaucrats—its mayor, judge, hospital director, and school principal—are all raking in graft. So, when they deduce that a visitor named Hlestakov is the inspector, they fall all over themselves trying to bribe him in an effort to maintain their positions. In reality, Hlestakov is just a debt-ridden government clerk—as well as braggart and womanizer—but he’s happy to play into their mistake and accept their cash.
Humour, more than tragedy, tends to be rooted in its period, and it’s often hard to grasp the essence of classics in translation. Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation contains lines Gogol probably would have fainted at. The school principal, for instance, talks about finding a teacher in flagrante delicto with “three farm girls, the tenor section of the boys’ choir, and a goat”. Hatcher’s adaptation is fast and breezy, but you can’t help but wonder about its distance from the original.
In this age of ubiquitous corruption, The Government Inspector’s satire is undeniably relevant, but it also feels broad and obvious, and its focus on small-town bureaucrats, rather than, say, the Koch brothers, looks antique.
To make this material work, you’d need a directorial vision and acting performances of comic genius. So director David Mackay and his largely student cast have their jobs cut out for them.
Joel Wirkkunen (the Mayor) is the only professional in the company and he shows how it’s done, especially in his furious physical commitment and sudden changes of rhythm. It’s particularly delicious when he realizes he’s screwed, goes inside himself, and lets a quiet little “Oh” pop out. Opposite him, Stephanie Izsak, who plays the Mayor’s wife, also impresses. Her characterization is fearlessly grotesque, especially in its sexual appetite. (Many of the female characters want to hump Hlestakov.) In smaller roles, Daniel Doheny wryly understates Hlestakov’s servant, Osip, and Katey Hoffman brings the right clear-eyed stupidity to the Postmistress. Tim W. Carlson has the toughest assignment, playing Hlestakov—the character is more amorphously amoral than starkly grasping—but he acquits himself well. In fact, the only major characterization that misses the mark is Siona Gareau-Brennan’s portrait of the Mayor’s daughter. Director Mackay lets the young actor play the daughter as a valley girl, an energy-sucking anachronism; yes, the character is diffident, but the part requires forceful diffidence—it is a paradox—or the comedy won’t work.
Designer Mara Gottler offers up some suitably hideous gowns, but it might have helped to let the show’s look go bigger and wilder.
Overall, this production gives a difficult play a credible stab, but it would need a lot more fireworks—constant, high-level invention—to really make it dazzle.