My Romanian father has this old joke he likes to tell. It’s about a drunk in Bucharest who’s lying down on the street. Another man notices the drunk, figures he must be lying down for a reason, and stands next to him. Pretty soon others are joining in, and there’s a line stretching around the block. When the drunk finally wakes up, he looks at all the people and says, “What luck! I’m at the front of the line!” Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector, the first Russian play at the Shakespeare Theater Company, is an extended riff on that joke, except with the added benefit of bold production values and a terrific cast.
In a quiet provincial town, all the government officials are hopelessly incompetent. The Judge (David Sabin) lets geese shit all over his courtroom. The Hospital Director (Larwrence Redmond) cannot build adequate rooms for his patients, so he constructs small rooms and changes the wing into a children’s hospital. The Postal Inspector (Floyd King) simply reads everyone’s mail. It’s a pleasantly corrupt existence until identical twin idiots (Harry A. Winter and Hugh Nees) hear that an inspector is in town from St. Petersburg. He’s staying at the inn, presumably to audit the town’s leadership, so everyone from the Mayor (Rick Foucheux) on down is worried they’ll be found out. They assume Ivan (Derek Smith) is the inspector, but he’s actually a lowly clerk who’s whoring his way through the countryside. Understandably, when the mayor starts bribing Ivan, he does not correct him.
Like last season’s A Servant of Two Masters, Jeffrey Archer’s adaption uses a classic play to showcase all manner of comedy. Most of the time, we’re laughing at the stupidity of the Mayor and the others. Their gleeful, matter-of-fact corruption is disarming at first, but then the routine of it becomes part of the joke. Sarah Marshall plays both an innkeeper and the Mayor’s house servant, and there’s a running gag where everyone pushes her off-stage. The costumes match the over-the-top comedy: designed by Murrell Horton, they look expensive and vulgar, which is the right choice. The Mayor in particular is dressed like a dumb man’s idea of how a smart politician should look.
The actors have big performances, shouting and gesturing wildly, yet it’s no surprise the deadpan one-liners resonate the most. In an early scene, Ivan’s servant Osip (Liam Craig) watches his master go through dramatic histrionics: he says he has no money left, and his only recourse is suicide. Shortly after this display, Craigs looks to the audience and says, “He does this every day.” Speaking with the world-weary experience, Craig does not steal the show, but we know a clever quip is never far from his lips. Another supporting standout is Claire Brownell, who plays the Mayor’s daughter. She has a permanent scowl and her nasal, annoyed voice is full of contempt. She’s like a character from a Tim Burton movie, with the added detail that she’s also a mischievous slut. By making no apologies for someone with a permanent monotone, Brownell’s performance is strangely charming.
The ending of The Government Inspector is inevitable. After giving Ivan so much of their money, the local leaders must learn they’ve been had. Yet what matters is not the plot, but its details. Director Michael Kahn includes impressive moments of stage-craft (a gunshot splinters a doorway) and little character moments (the townsfolk are hilarious, pathetic wretches). Everything about the production coalesces in the scene where Ivan goes to a big party at the Mayor’s house. Smith underplays Ivan’s deception, at least until he’s had a glass of rot gut wine. The tenor of the scene changes the moment Ivan shouts, “VODKA!” Everyone is suddenly happier, and the party transforms into a genuine celebration. Ivan lies through his teeth, of course, but his mirth seems genuine. Gogol is saying that this joy, just like the inept bureaucracy, is all part of the Russian character. Everyone in this town is a liar, but that doesn’t mean they (or the audience) can’t have any fun.
The Government Inspector is at the Landsburgh Theatre until October 28th. Buy tickets here!