Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Government Inspector at NCRT

NCRT production

I review the North Coast Rep production of Gogol's The Government Inspector (also known as The Inspector General) in the North Coast Journal this week.  I'm reproducing that review below--unchanged from the print version, except for these photos--because I want to add something about the process, that may (or may not) reveal something about the process applicable to other plays.

As I've written here more than once, my approach to reviewing is the Stoppard system of expressing my response to the performance I see.  I add to this my belief that information about the play and other productions are of interest to readers, both those who have seen or will see this production, and those who won't.  Also because that information is of interest to me, and part of my experience of the play.

There are some reviews that are relatively easy to write: I responded to this in this way, and to that in that way, etc.  Most often it's not that easy, and sometimes it's really difficult.  This was one of those times.

I went to opening night: Thursday, June 2.  In many respects the production went very well.  The performers accomplished the physical and verbal humor with efficiency and style.  I laughed (even when no one else did--at some of Hatcher's more obscure jokes, apparently.)  So much slapstick can get wearying, and it seemed some of the audience felt that way as well as me. But there was a lot to like.  So why didn't I like it more than I did?  There just seemed something empty about it.  It seemed like some postmodern pastiche, yet this was a greatly praised play.

And so I spent the entire weekend trying to figure that out.  I couldn't put my finger on a reason, except maybe a mood I brought with me to the theatre that the show couldn't entirely shake.

I was pretty much in despair about this, as in the middle of the night I was barely keeping my eyes open as I scanned reviews of other productions of this play, especially of this particular adaptation, on the Internet.  That's where I got my clue.  I noticed that several reviews singled out two characters for praise: the Postmaster (a choice role, and a standout in the NCRT production, too) and the Mayor.  Rather, I absorbed this without particularly noticing it.

But then, moments after I'd left the computer it came to me.  The character they didn't name was the supposed government inspector.  That seemed odd, because the NCRT production really featured this character.  Then I realized why I felt that sense of emptiness.  The play I saw was the story of the faux inspector--how this rogue used this opportunity.  But the Gogol satire wasn't about him, it was about how the town leaders behaved.  It was the Mayor's story, and apparently other productions had emphasized this, probably through casting, staging, costuming, etc.  And with that small difference, it becomes a different play. 

That may or may not be a correct perception of this production---but at least now I understood how I had experienced it, and why it left me feeling the way I felt.  Apart from any other moods.  This idea allowed me to write the review.  The whole review was made possible by this idea.  But it is stated in one sentence, at the end of the review.  I didn't need to say anything more about it.  

The process of experiencing the play goes on after the performance, and in this case, after the review deadline.  Another bit of my research was about how to characterize the comedy.  The playbill and actors' statements called it a farce, and it certainly had some of the characteristics of farces.  But strictly speaking, it probably isn't a farce.  The style is farcical, but there can be differences between farce and satire.  Anyway, this led me to read Eric Bentley, who in his The Life of the Drama has separate chapters for Farce and Comedy, and points out various differences.  It's a bit abstruse, and a little too Freudian for me to follow completely.  Plus he gets pretty elliptical.  At one point he lists playwrights who write comedy rather than farce, and Gogol is on that list.  But he doesn't say specifically why he is on that list.

It was Monday by the time I thought of one possible reason.  The various town leaders--not just the Mayor but his wife and daughter, a teacher, head of the hospital, merchants, etc.--sometimes speak mournfully about the position they're in.  It's all part of the general high hilarity on stage, but people who feel they are stuck in provincial Russia and long for the city and nobility--those are characters in Chekhov, too.  So it is this Chekovian humanity in these otherwise absurdly small-minded and corrupt characters that might be why this is comedy rather than mechanical farce.  Fortunately, that possibility is implied in the review's final sentence--an elaboration of the comic complexity.

So with too much introduction, here's the review....

Meyerhold production 1926
 The Government Inspector, Nikolai Gogol’s mid-19th century surreal satire, has been called the greatest play in the Russian language by no less than mid-20th century prose stylist Vladimir Nabokov. Over the decades it’s been translated and adapted many times in many countries, but it seems particularly popular right now. A version that’s just opening in London is the second new adaptation in the UK in just the past few years. In 2008 American playwright Jeffrey Hatcher adapted it for the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis and Milwaukee Rep. Perhaps reflecting current attitudes towards government, the style of all these recent versions tilts decidedly towards farce.

premiere of Hatcher adaptation, Guthrie Theatre, MN 

Even before the current North Coast Repertory Theatre staging of the Hatcher version, there have been other productions here this year, sort of. Just last month, Northcoast Preparatory Academy used the Gogol play as the framework for their pastiche, Russian Promenade, at the Bayside Grange. Dan Sullivan’s play Inspecting Carol borrows from the framing story of The Government Inspector, as presented last December at the Arcata Playhouse by the Rialto Theater Company in a production that included no fewer than six participants in this North Coast Rep show, including four cast members.

current London production of a different adaptation

The play’s premise is simple: the Postmaster of a Russian village, who reads everyone’s mail in advance (which is why the mail is often late—he falls behind in his reading) tells the Mayor that a government inspector from the capital is secretly visiting towns in this region. But the news is months old, so the stranger from the city who has been staying at the inn is quickly identified as the government inspector.

Of course he isn’t—he’s a minor bureaucrat with delusions of grandeur and a gambling problem. But the Mayor and other officials ply him with bribes, while the Mayor’s wife simultaneously offers him her daughter and herself.

Groucho sings 'Lydia' in "At the Circus"

Mistaken identity is only the beginning. There is ample opportunity for slapstick, pratfalls and other shtick, and in this production, no such opportunity goes begging. The resulting mayhem is like a collision of classical Greek and Roman satire, French bedroom farce, absurdist commedia and American vaudeville. Meanwhile, Hatcher supplies verbal wit, both gross and subtle, with echoes of Jonathan Swift and anticipations of Stephen Colbert. But even though it’s no Duck Soup, the Marx Brothers as reining spirits are made explicit in the faux inspector’s improvised love song to the Mayor’s daughter—with nearly identical lyrics and the same melody as Groucho’s second-most-famous tune, “Lydia, The Tatooed Lady.”

The cast performs with unflagging energy and style: David Hamilton is the pretend inspector, Scott Malcolm the Mayor, Rae Robison the Mayor’s wife; Anders Carlson and JM Wilkerson are the Russian Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum. Also essential and entertaining in other roles are Daniel Amaral, Rebecca Caswell, Dave Fuller, Brittany Gonzales, Lexus Landry, Scott Malcolm, Scott Osborn, David Schlosser, David Simms, Jennifer Trustem, Brian Walker, James Wright and Andrea Zvaleko. Samuel Clemens Cord struck a notable balance as the comic Postmaster—a sunny, believable person, yet a few stops past eccentricity.

As North Coast Rep actors, director Adina Lawson and assistant director Evan Needham are both acquainted with what’s possible on this particular stage, so the orchestration of the action is flawless. Calder Johnson provides a handsome open set as well as lighting, Lauren Wieland and Rae Robison the costumes, Brittany Gonzales and Michael Thomas the sound. Together they present a funny and theatrical evening. I did feel that the production emphasized the phony inspector’s story: how a rogue improvises advantages from the mistaken identity. But it’s the Mayor’s story that’s the soul of the play, and through it the complexities of small town pretension, corruption and selfish ambition are satirically exposed and elaborated.

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