Thursday, November 02, 2017

“The Government Inspector” Hits the Funnybone and Misses the Commentary

A moment from The Government Inspector (John Ulman)
The Government Inspector
Seattle Shakespeare Company
Through November 19, 2017

There was a ton of laughing by the audience at the opening night of The Government Inspector at Seattle Shakespeare Company. I laughed some myself. Just, unfortunately, not nearly enough or maybe even too much.

Nikolai Gogol wrote this now-classic play in 1836. It is an ironic and subversive play (for the powers-that-be of Imperial Russia of the time) pointing out the rampant greed, governmental abuses, political corruption, and commenting on the public’s essential stupidity.

Corrupt leaders of a small Russian town, including the Mayor (Rob Burgess) and wife (Sara Wisanen), the Judge (Imogen Love), the Postman (Jonelle Jordan), and town bigwigs (Susanna Burney, Brace Evans, Doug Fries, Kevin Kelly, Arjun Pande and Brandon J. Simmons) hear that a government inspector is coming incognito to town. All are afraid that their corruption will be easily revealed and many bad consequences might follow. However, they have no idea how to figure out who the inspector is.

But there is a new guy in town – he’s been staying at the local hotel and has only been there a week. The Mayor figures out that the letter announcing the coming of the inspector has been delayed by the Postman for a month (don’t ask), so they all decide that guy must be the inspector!

Khlestakov (R. Hamilton Wright) is a down-on-his-luck fellow who has run out of money, and we know immediately that he is no government inspector. Suddenly, though, the Mayor shows up and starts showering him with money. The Mayor’s wife starts hinting that their daughter (Shanna Allman) might be available to court. Other townspeople also present gifts of money. All bribe the “inspector” to save their positions and their power.

The production helmed by director Allison Narver, known for her talent for directing farce, has many farcical and funny elements. Aided by choreographer Crystal Dawn Munkers, Narver includes “dancing” with rolling set pieces like doorways and large desks, for amusing effect. The cast members are game and ready to have fun and throw themselves (sometimes literally) into the action.

Where I think the production disappoints, however, is that no one is ever really afraid and none of the venality of bribery and greed are highlighted. If one asks “why now” to mount a play such as this, an obvious reason might be to highlight the current administration’s lean toward authoritarian societies and Russia’s in particular. Spoofing Putin, then, more overtly, might actually bring this old play into more current relief. Maybe the very bad wig that Wright wears (the main one of many bad wigs, part of a wig joke) is an attempt to mirror a Putin “look.” But there is nothing else indicating a contemporary comment.

In fact, Khlestakov never really seems at risk, nor does he seem very amazed or confused when people start giving him money. As this happens, he tells the audience – this is a very early example of “breaking the fourth wall” in theater – that when he gets drunk, he starts to terribly inflate his resume. Then the town goes about getting him drunk. When he tells them all about how great a person he is, it confirms the town’s suspicions that he is the government inspector.

But Wright does not actually “act drunk” in any significant convincing way. If he did, it would reinforce the idea that the townspeople are stupid for not recognizing his inebriation and casting doubt on what he says.

The production rolls on very, very quickly. That can be appropriate in a farce. Indeed, timing is everything in getting the jokes to land. The two best performers with timing were Jordan and Allman. Some performers, including usually articulate Burgess, speak so quickly as to be almost garbled.

The production feels far more like a Marx Brothers movie, where little is at stake, than a commentary on vast governmental misdeeds and subversion of an entire society! If you would like something “entertaining and funny,” and without much social impact, then you will likely enjoy the production a lot. If you were looking for some incisive social commentary at which to be amused, this will not likely fit the bill.

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