The Government Inspector: Theater Review
Nikolai Gogol's satirical Russian comedy of greed and corruption from 1836 is imbued with topical immediacy, from the Great Recession to Occupy Wall Street.
Often attempted and rendered badly (most familiarly as a toothless Danny Kaye 1949 film musical), Nikolai Gogol’s comedy about an opportunistic vagabond mistaken by venal town officials for an inspector general — sent from St. Petersburg to expose their corruption — makes a sturdy template for a resolutely farcical treatment festooned with topical immediacy. Pasadena’s premiere developers of new work, The Theatre @ Boston Court and Furious Theatre Company (late of residence at the Carrie Hamilton space upstairs from the Pasadena Playhouse), have joined forces in a production that manages to blend the high polish characteristic of the former with the scrappiness of the latter into a heady entertainment.
Adapter Oded Gross largely concocts an original work rife with references to the current Great Recession, Occupy Wall Street and the 99 percent overlying Gogol’s setup, retaining the Czarist setting while rapaciously piling on anachronisms, from landline telephones to copious references to fairy tales and Disney princesses. To this viewer, Gross’ theatrical strategies seem far more derived from Nobel prizewinning playwright-provocateur Dario Fo, pushing the comedy to extremes in service of a highly political critique of our society. The ideas may be righteous, if not shaded, subtle or deep, and the satire lacks the pungency and bite one might hope for in a richer work, the agitprop more ornamentally invoked than passionately urged. Even with faux-mordant songs, this is bargain basement Brecht.
Yet the production itself is immaculate, an admirable mechanism that makes the double-edged Marxian analysis comically persuasive. Not a gesture or inflection is misplaced by the cast of all Los Angeles theater mainstays, and director Stefan Novinski keeps the pace breakneck. Adam Haas Hunter spikes his Punch-like protagonist with utter shamelessness and no redeeming qualities — thankfully not even charm. While the rogues’ gallery of men are sometimes reduced to running well-executed routines, the women here get most of the best laughs: Shannon Holt as the slatternly mayor’s wife in an Ann-Margret fright wig parlays some of her double-takes into triples, religious wrong-wing zealot Sara Hennessy channels Sarah Palin without cheap imitation, and Eileen T’Kaye, the imposter’s long-suffering servant, evolves into the only truly sympathetic character without sacrificing any class-conscious acerbity. Meanwhile, Joe Fria, as usual, manages to take a smaller turn into outsized territory as his annoying functionary continually shanghais all discussions into maddening irrelevancy and yet still stumbles into shards of identifiable humanity. All the estimable players benefit handsomely from transcendently droll and inventive costumes by Tina Haatainen-Jones.
Essentially a manic gagfest redeemed by beat-perfect timing, this The Government Inspector even knows enough to make the most of its inevitable bad jokes. Since the theme is fundamentally that we of human civilization must ourselves make the best of our own irretrievably bad jokes, this comedy conveys that point piquantly.
Venue: Boston Court Performing Arts Center, Pasadena (runs through August 26). Presented by The Theatre @ Boston Court and Furious Theatre Company
Playwright: Nikolai Gogol
Director: Stefan Novinski
Adapter: Oded Gross
Cast: Adam Haas Hunter, John Billingsley, Shannon Holt, Joe Fria, Eileen T’Kaye, Sara Hennessy, Megan Goodchild, Alan Brooks, Dana Kelly Jr., Jacob Sidney
Original Songs: Oded Gross
Scenic Design: Donna Marquet
Lighting Design: Steven Young
Sound Design, Arrangements and Musical Direction: John Ballinger
Costume Design: Tina Haatainen-Jones .