The Government Inspector

All right, let’s start with this. The Government Inspector is a five-alarm fire of a play, a bell-ringing, jitterbugging dance through a swamp of hypocrisy which is both ancient and modern. It is better than five stars; in The Government Inspector everyone’s a star, in his own sick, mendacious way.

For example, consider poor Anton Antonovich (Rich Foucheux). He has labored for years as Mayor of a provincial Russian town apparently too poor to afford a name, and has finally achieved the proper mixture of graft and corruption. Together with a small coterie of thieves and morons – the incompetent, the corruptible, the incorrigibles – he has established a kingdom of mud. Hell would be like his town, if the devil had no imagination.

But, hell or not, it’s his, and he basks in satisfaction. But one day – oh, woe betide him! – he learns that the Czar has sent a Special Inspector! (He learns this through his intelligence system – the Postmaster [Floyd King], who reads all the mail before he allows it to be delivered. Unfortunately, the Postmaster is a little behind in his work, and it seems the Inspector General has already been in town for three weeks by the time the Mayor learns of his presence.) In a flash, Mayor Antonovich sees his future – sees himself withering before the gaze of some stern überbureaucrat; sees his kingdom dismantled and himself packed off to Siberia. Imagine any Assistant Undersecretary in your acquaintance receiving a Notice from the Special Counsel, and blow up the emotional response ten thousand times, and you see the Mayor, anticipating the Government Inspector.

The cast of The Government Inspector, directed by Michael Kahn. (Photo: Scott Suchman)

But it’s not just him. The Judge (David Sabin), who weighs the scales of justice by the number of rubles the plaintiff and defendant put in his hands; the School Principal (Craig Wallace), who awards grades on the basis of parental donations (“And we have the six finest gymnasiums in the district,” he points out); the Hospital Director (Lawrence Redmond), who has just built a hospital with rooms so small they can’t fit any beds in them (the mayor’s cousin is the contractor), and his constant companion, the Chief of Surgery (an unrecognizable Tom Story), who does not speak a word of Russian, or of any other language known on Earth – they are all in deep, deep doo-doo if the Inspector inspects too much.

So, guided by a few choice phrases overheard by the unrelated but eerily similar-looking merchants Dobchinsky (Harry A. Winter) and Bobchinsky (Hugh Nees), the great leaders of the town decide to beard the Government Inspector in his own den, which they take to be a miserable Inn in the middle of town. A thorough look at Dobchinsky and Bobchinsky might inform the careful observer that they are not likely to be reliable witnesses; their enthusiastically vacant expressions are matched only by their gloriously hideous green plaid suits (all hail costume designer Murell Horton). They are tweedledum and tweedledumber.

Derek Smith as Hlestakov and Sarah Marshall as Grusha (Photo by Scott Suchman)

And so the man they have led the town dignitaries to is not the Government Inspector at all but Ivan Alexandreyevich Hlestakov (Derek Smith), an impecunious government clerk on the verge of suicide who has invested all of his money in whisky, women and gambling – and crashed.

We know it but our hapless Town Fathers do not. And so the penniless Ivan Alexandreyevich finds himself fêted, cosseted, and – most importantly – given money. Lots of it. What’s more, hizzoner schemes to match Ivan Alexandreyevich with the Mayor’s sullen daughter (Claire Brownell) – while the Mayor’s wife (Nancy Robinette) has a more seasoned mating in mind: herself.

Yes, and you can guess the rest of the play. This is not exactly a farce, but it is the x-treme version of Russians Behaving Badly, and this energetic cast of Shakespeare Theatre regulars tuck into it with the gusto of recently-retired supermodels upon porterhouses. Director Michael Kahn has obviously given the green light to broad, near-vaudevillian comedy; Dobchinsky and Bobchinsky, for example, are not above bumping into each other as their broad bodies exit through a narrow door. Brownell is particularly good at this one-note hilarity; as the Mayor’s concupiscent young daughter she talks to everyone else as if he or she was a stone imbecile, and she may be correct.

Derek Smith, who has graced the stage here as Antonio in The Merchant of Venice and as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, gives us something different as Ivan Alexandreyevich. The Town Fathers and their scrum are everyday frauds, bombast-spewing blowhards, but the character Smith brings us is, notwithstanding his humble station, an artist of mendacity.

Hugh Nees as Bobchinsky and Harry A. Winter as Dobchinsky (Photo: Scott Suchman)

Except when his deadpan servant (a spot-on Liam Craig) brings him down to earth, Ivan Alexandreyevich seems to truly believe himself to be an artist, a poet, a lover, beloved by the Czar, living in a pesthole of a room in a ruin of an inn in a mudhole of a town (and behind on his rent!) only because of cruel chance. When the Town Fathers believe him to be the man of his own dreams, who is he to argue? The Mayor brings him home and serves him the caustic local wine, followed by vodka, in the hope of loosening his tongue and getting him to tell more about his mission. Instead (and Smith does a fabulous drunk), his confabulations become more dramatic. He is a versifier as part of his government mission. He is an advisor to Pushkin, who helped him write Eugene Onegin. He is…unconscious.

This is truly a Ship of Buffoons, but never for a moment do these actors push beyond the bounds of plausibility. We see in Foucheux’s desperate Mayor every government plutocrat who seeks to squeeze the system to the max before he gets caught (were there some of those in GSA?); in Robinette’s bitter and cynical wife every woman who believes she married below her station, and for whom the train still hasn’t left. Sabin’s Judge commits his abominations with great gravity and dignity, sinning with one hand and forgiving himself with the other. And every other one of these slimy creatures, as preposterous and hilarious as they are, seem completely real.


Highly Recommended

The Government Inspector

Closes Oct. 28, 2012
Lansburgh Theatre
450 7th Street NW
Washington, DC 20004
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $43 – $95
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Details
Tickets

That’s because they are. I said earlier that this was Russians Behaving Badly, but tell me if you think this sounds familiar: Ivan Alexandreyevich, upon completion of a tour of the town, innocently expresses his appreciation for “the sports buildings with the little schools attached.” Or how about this: the corporal’s widow (Sarah Marshall, who plays several roles), describing how her husband came to be drafted for his final, fatal war, explains that there were many men ahead of him on the list, but their fathers all offered the mayor useful things – a uniform, drapes for his home, and so on – in return for a deferral. But the corporal, alas, had no such skills to offer. “The Mayor says, ‘Your husband is old, he’s no use to you anymore,’” she explains to the man she believes is the Government Inspector. “I say, ‘He wasn’t of any use to me when he was young. Still, I was used to him.’” Of course, these days we do it with a volunteer army, which predominantly attracts young folks with limited options.

Tragedy lies at the bottom of comedy, and tragedy is universal. The amusing antics of the scamps who populate Nikolai Gogol’s story and people like them were the cause of untold misery for millions of Russians, and Jeffrey Hatcher’s lively adaptation, and Shakespeare Theatre’s superb production, makes the story startlingly fresh. Gogol wrote The Government Inspector in 1836; eighty-five years later, the Russia he wrote about no longer existed. Draw your own conclusion.

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The Government Inspector, by Nikolai Gogol, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher, features Derek Smith, Liam Craig, Rick Foucheux, Nancy Robinette, Claire Brownell, Sarah Marshall, David Sabin, Craig Wallace, Lawrence Redmond, Floyd King, Harry A. Winter, Hugh Nees, Tom Story, and Travis Blumer. Directed by Michael Kahn, assisted by Gus Heagerty; set design by James Noone; Costume Design by Murell Horton; Lighting design by Phillip S. Rosenberg; Adam Wernick, Composer; Sound design by Veronika Vorel; Wig design by Anne Nesmith. Claire E. Zawa,Stage Manager, assisted by Elizabeth Clewley, Joseph Smelser, Production Stage Manager.

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