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Another Century’s Mirror: Boston Court/Furious Theatre’s new “Inspector General” has a modern reflection
Over the past century, “The Government Inspector,” written by Nikolai Gogol in 1836 as a satire on Tsarist government corruption, has continued to find an audience, particularly in the west. Based on an incident which actually happened to his friend Pushkin, its vicious send-up of the dishonesty and ethical vapidity of bureaucrats has rung just true enough to rarely be off the boards in some form or another at any time since the early 1930s.
Now a new translation/adaptation by Oded Gross, a man adept at sharp translations of classic social satires, has landed at The Theatre at Boston Court in Pasadena. Co-produced with Pasadena’s Furious Theatre Company, it sets the play in a fantastical Russia, ramps up its absurdity, then peppers it with current political references. The result is a roasting of the modern age: ferocious, filled with funny but completely unsympathetic characters, and bleak in its skewering of what they – and we – have become.
The tale, which has been told in films and operas and topical adaptations many, many times, is essentially this: a small-town mayor and his cronies have heard that a government inspector is coming incognito to investigate – with considerable reason – their reported corruption. When they hear of a man from St. Petersburg behaving pompously in the local inn, they assume he must be the man they are afraid of, and treat him accordingly: moving him into the mayor’s house and finding ways to accommodate and impress him. He isn’t the inspector, of course, but a snobby if incompetent wastrel. And thereby lies the comedy.
In this new rendition, director Stefan Novinsky leans toward the absurd – a style which fits this satire well. Everything is exaggerated, from gestures, to costumes, to the profound self-absorption of every single one of the characters. The sheer “stagey-ness” of the thing is its own statement.
John Billingsley plays the unsavory mayor as a man impressed by his own impressiveness, and willing to ignore those facts which don’t intersect with his self-importance. His cronies include Joe Fria, innocent-like as the romantic young clerk whose main hobby seems to be prying into the lives of others, Dana Kelly, Jr. as the crustily amoral judge, and most particularly a very funny Alan Brooks as the cartoonishly corpulent and food-addicted health minister.
Adam Haas Hunter plays up the boorish self-indulgence and juvenile vapidity of Khlestakov, the failed civil servant they take for the government agent. It’s a wonderful, and wonderfully disturbing portrait. As the German doctor intertwining with these folks despite none of them understanding German, a crisp and precise Jacob Sidney adds yet another layer of ridiculousness, until his own secret comes out.
And then there are their women. Sara Hennesy, in the briefest yet perhaps most strongly recognizable part, has a great time with the powerful love interest of the health minister, playing her as a cross between Sarah Palin and Barbara Bachmann. Shannon Holt makes the frustrated wife of the mayor just garish and grasping enough not to be either elitist or attractive. Megan Goodchild gives the mayor’s supposedly beloved daughter that air of someone who sees life as a romantic novel, making her shock of reality at the end particularly striking.
Interestingly, Khlestakov’s servant, originally a valet whose practicality is used to keep his master safe, is here turned into a peasant woman with an independent sense of both herself and the situation. As played by Eileen T’Kaye she brings the sort of observer-in-the-story eye to the piece one usually finds in Checkov.
One of the true treasures of this piece is the set, especially the portraits on the back wall – supposedly of former town mayors and officials. There are portrayed the heroes, including the dubious ones, of our own age. It certainly sets the tone for the general comic disquiet this production celebrates, though one may also find it a distraction, albeit a very funny one.
Indeed, if there is any down side to this piece it may be the distance created by the height of the absurdity of it all. The whole thing is so over the top it is possible to nod and smile and detach from what is a very pointed calling out of modern government, the selfishness of our culture, and the effects of monetary and social privilege. Gogol was holding up a mirror, and Gross and Novinsky have turned the mirror toward us. In the midst of the humor, the trick is not to be so dazzled by the reflection we don’t see ourselves.
What: “The Inspector General” When: Through August 26, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave (at Boston Court) in Pasadena How Much: $34 Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.bostoncourt.org