All Things Entertaining and Cultural
In American cartoons, dogs chased cats or cats chased mice or Popeye chased Bluto. Mr. Peabody, Rocky and Bullwinkle, and adventurers such as Clutch Cargo provided other animated fare. And, of course, there was Mickey and Donald. And Bugs and Daffy, my favorites. American cartoons usually featured some creature trying to avoid an angry adversary, made angry because of some mischief perpetrated by Bugs or whomever I’d most likely be rooting for.
Eastern cartoons, mostly from Poland and seen who knows where, were distinct. They featured square-headed people who were always cowering from, or worried about getting caught by, some authority. Their fear was palpable. Their posture and facial expressions were a perpetual cringe. It was clear they would suffer dire punishment if they displeased whatever apparatchik was in charge of them.
These cartoons made a big impression. While I was raised at a time where a child would not be praised or supported in challenging teachers or rabbis or other adult leaders, I had no fear of those people and never thought they meant me any harm. (Well, maybe, Miss Conway, my fifth grade teacher, petite but a real Gorgon.) Eastern characters, mostly adult, froze at an official being in their vicinity. It was clear before anyone could indoctrinate me one way or another that a police state existed in parts of Europe, and people were conditioned to be wary of it.
Later on, in Russian plays written before Lenin’s revolution, I saw that same squirming quality in people when they were confronted with authority. Even Chekhov, in “The Sneeze,” depicted a clerk who was terrified about his future, his freedom, and his employment after he accidentally, but uncontrollably, sneezed on his supervisor’s bald head while sitting behind him at a play, Chekhov and the cartoons showed me Milan Kundera’s “The Joke,” in which a Czech man is excoriated as an enemy of the state because of an idle, harmless comment, might have tentacles reaching back deep into the 19th century in terms of the consequences one mild fleer at absolute authority might cause.
A comedian of the first rank, Nikolai Gogol, confirms that assumption. In several of his pieces, Gogol makes gleeful fun of totalitarian authority and the people who shrink, for good reason, at his wake.
Among the funniest and most telling of his works, “The Government Inspector,” shows an entire town, from officials to petty clerks, nearing apoplexy when they learn the czar’s representative in their district is sending an inspector to report on how efficiently public responsibilities are carried out and honesty is maintained.
Many have reason to worry. As they rationalize, while anticipating the arrival of the inspector, the small bribes and other forms of blackmail and extortion regularly used in the name of business as usual, the mayor and other characters in a remote Russian village generally considered too insignificant for scrutiny admit their individual and universal guilt. They don’t expect to be caught by the inspector — In fact, they plan to take steps to prevent that. — but they are aware he could find egregious violations if he is thorough enough. Violations galore!
Matters become more tension-fraught and frantic when two officials, both named Pyotr Ivanovich, who can afford to waste time spending hours at an inn where they gather and disseminate idle gossip, report, one confirming the other, that a mysterious, high-living gentleman no one knows has been staying at the inn for a week and taking in the sights of the town.
Catapulting instead of merely jumping to conclusions, the consensus is the man is the government inspector, must be the government inspector, already in everyone’s midst and taking notes before anyone has the chance to hide or hush up his malfeasance in office.
Visions of Siberia frighten the mayor and others who may have accepted an errant ruble, or 50, in the course of objectively carrying out their municipal responsibilities. The gossips’ news, and everyone’s nervous reaction to it, foments a great comedy in which people fall all over themselves to impress and eke a good report from an authority who can literally make their lives too miserable to live. Gogol ups the stakes by having the stranger, Ivan Alexandrovich Khlestakov, be a spendthrift wastrel who can outdo the most blatant local scoundrel in chicanery, and is no more a government official than he is an upright, thoughtful man.
No one in the larcenous outpost has half the daring chutzpah Khlestakov does. Not only does he demand and command constantly, he does so as if he’s entitled by birth and position to live lavishly by cadging from others. Khlestakov doesn’t have a beer budget — He’s bankrupt and about to be evicted from the inn on his ear — but he certainly has champagne taste, which he’s more than willing to indulge at anyone’s expense who will foot it.
Gogol’s is a great play, filled with wrong assumptions and coincidences that not only show what fools mortals be but what crooks they are as well, the undeserving and the public servants being the most greedy of all.
In a breakneck production that definitely takes it music, a perhaps its pacing, attitude, and tone from Wes Anderson’s 2014 film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Tina Brock and her Idiopathic Ridiculopathy crew pull out all frantic stops to show all of the guilty looniness of the officials and Khlestakov, while letting Gogol’s points about the fear of authority and worry about criminal exposure come through.
What else can one do but worry if he or she is guilty of the offense? Gogol is a satirist. He is not showing all official hands in the till, but the commonness of corruption and graft that is rife, and considered normal, in Russian villages (as if it happens no place else).
Brock’s production is exhausting in its quick pace and high stylization. The effort is worth it as the fecklessness of all comes comically to light, and Andrew Carroll gives a sparkling performance as the alleged inspector so open to bribes and other valuable tokens of appreciation, even the townspeople are astounded at how easy he is to get around (and how much he can teach them about getting a palm greased or accepting the best of everything in exchange for what can only be nothing).
Brock’s staging reminds me of those Iron Curtain cartoons of my childhood. She directs her characters to have that same conspiratorial air of fear the cartoons made so vivid, and she shows a town in dudgeon so high, it might never recover from its efforts to keep the government inspector from recommending a good old-fashioned purge to the czar.
Actors are clear-spoken, and characterizations are big, each line being delivered with urgency that reveals the anxiety the town’s denizens are feeling and the nervous tension that motivates all of their acts.
Khlestakov is the only one who can afford to be calm, and he would be so anyway. It’s his nature not to care about details and to trust to providence to spare him embarrassment, and even prison, or to give him a chance to flee. He, as Carroll shows, is pleased by the turn of events that finds the innkeeper providing a sumptuous well-cooked dinner after he just about threw Khlestakov out for non-payment of rent and gave him tawdry gruel for his previous meal.
Uproar is the key to the townspeople’s behavior, and Brock depicts that uproar well. It is amusing to see everyone fall all over themselves to make sure the man they think is a government agent is content and unlikely to say anything that will lead to calamity, or Siberia, later.
Brock always likes the big effect. She is a proponent of bold, colorful theater with amusing costumes, broad characterizations, and lots of false mustaches and pot bellies. She also likes to put a touch of folksiness into her comedies, especially those set in small backwater towns. For her, heightened artificiality becomes the reality, and “The Government Inspector” falls neatly into Brock’s bailiwick. Size fits the play and the production. Also, characters can be expansive and dressed as obvious comic types. To Brock’s credit, the actors playing them all find something distinctive to distinguish them and to keep even their wildest fancy on a human scale. Even the two Pyotr Ivanoviches can be told apart.
Everyone in the play is too conniving and too much out for his or her own aggrandizement to care about much else, until Khlestakov or an actual government inspector appears. Even then, the emphasis is on how to gull the czar’s representative more than to alter time-honored larcenous habits. Comeuppance, in the form of prosecution, is all most of the characters deserve. That’s why it’s funny to watch them quail as they try to find a way to get the better of the alleged inspector the way they usually get the better of each other.
Gogol, and Brock, have a field day showing the dishonesty of it all. He depicts the town as a nest of vipers who would do anything to give them advantage over another townsman, let alone a pompous but rich-looking stranger. Brock’s “The Government Inspector, aims for the comic and satiric from the beginning. It doesn’t take time to soften scenes or let the characters be more than types, for all the actors’ work at individuating them. Brock sees the humor in the corrupt enjoying, understanding, and accepting each other’s corruption and the panic that ensues once those corrupt fear the jig may be up.
Gogol tells us about the inspector right away. The mayor receives an official message, which Brock has read from a scroll, that the official is on his way. He then goes into a remorseless litany of the sins he may have to curtail, or put in abeyance, while the inspector is lurking. The director of a hospital and nursing home, the superintendent of the town’s schools, and judge plan similar precautions. They will suspend their graft and lazy performance of their duties until the coast is clear, and they can restore things to their crooked normality.
Brock’s quartet of town officials look well fattened by their embezzlements and pretend to an official posture while saying the things they will have to do to keep the inspector off any scent of foul play. Gogol gives his characters wonderfully comic names like Lyapkin-Tyapkin and Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky. They add to the humor, but Brock doesn’t need the help. Her cast is funny. They know how keep both their cringing, and their poses of looking above board while being fraudulent as sin, entertaining. Brock’s style is to exaggerate and go for the grand effect. It works here because it bring out the self-importance of the characters without making the comedy seem forced or overdone. The bluster and puffery of the town leaders is appropriate. They are big shots who go about acting like big shots. Why not reinforce their pomposity by having them seem ostentatiously proud, justified, content, and respectable when they’re really thieves and windbags? Jack Tamburri sets the right tone as the mayor who if frightened of the inspector but wants to put on a show of municipal probity until he can back to his lucrative graft.
While Tamburri anchors groups scenes, Andrew Carroll is marvelous as a Khlestakov who doesn’t quite realize how fortune turned him within a second from a deadbeat bum to a lionized celebrity and doesn’t care. Carroll’s Khlestakov is content to bask in his new-found favor and accept the thousands of rubles people are suddenly giving him in wads as he earned them. This Khlestakov doesn’t take time to wonder whether the largesse is a matter of charity or a bribe. A ruble is a ruble. Ten thousand rubles are ten thousand rubles. As long as Khlestakov’s pockets are being lined, why ask the reason people are being so generous?
It’s part of Gogol’s satire to show that the town officials are so used to being bought, their first inclination is to buy Khlestakov’s favor. It does not daunt them a bit when he takes what’s offered. It only lets them know inspectors may not be too different from local potentates when it comes to accepting random tokens of esteem.
Carroll is merrily ingenuous as Khlestakov. He makes the character the happy-go-lucky sort. He may a well-dressed and able to boast of a good family, but he is basically an optimistic vagabond who believes the losses he endured at cards or on the horses will return to him with interest at some point. Carroll’s Khlestakov would never bother himself with anything as dull as introspection or as limiting as conscience. He is the ultimate man about town who enjoys the best of everything and doesn’t worry about whether he can afford it.
Why should he? He doesn’t intend to pay his way. Getting the better of an innkeeper, then skedaddling before anything foul hits the fan is his way. He’s Harold Hill without a plan to swindle. He plays people for fools by necessity. He might be grand and generous if he had cash. Not having it, he’s content to be grand and seek champagne, filet, and women whether he acquires them fairly or not.
Carroll shows Khlestakov to be ecstatic at his good luck when Tamburri’s mayor calls of him and give him the first large sum of money. Again, he doesn’t ask the mayor’s reason for plying him with so much cash, but he accepts it as his due. He must have charmed the mayor in a way that was so natural, he doesn’t remember it.
Who needs the memory’ just take the cash.
Carroll continues his ebullient blitheness as he makes his way through the town an becomes rich in intended hush money for which he cannot fathom a purpose. Or care to. Even as Khlestakov catches on to the mistake townspeople are making regarding his identity, he is eager to play his part and collect a nest egg that would stand him well at the next gambling den. Quickly acquired and just as soon squandered fortune seem to be the life-embracing Khlestakov’s lot.
Carroll is canny never to become serious, even after he realizes people are paying him for a purpose, and he can collect more if he acts sterner or as if he isn’t getting graft enough. On the contrary, he revels even more and gets, if possible, giddier, when he gleans there’s method in the town’s madness.
Jack Tamburri is larger than life as the mayor. He seems to loom over everyone and even over the doorways In the brilliant set Lisi Stoessel created for IRC, panels of folk painting depicting scenes representing everything from love to devilry in 10 symmetrically place panels, five above five. Doorways are cut into the lower panels, and when you first see Tamburri in the mayor’s high top hat, you wonder if he’ll fit through any of them.
He does. And so do all of the others. Brock uses the doorways creatively to show people coming and going suddenly and as places people can listen to or observe a situation without being noticed. Even better for these spying sessions are a series of windows Stoessel cut into the upper row of folk art. The opening, slamming, and overall use of those windows maintain the fast, witty feel of Brock’s production. One character can eavesdrop like a yenta while another shouts news from the casements.
Confusion reigns rampantly on the streets below, and we revel in the comedy derived from that confusion.
Tomas Dura and Bob Schmidt are hilarious as the Pyotr Ivanoviches, who argue about who said what first and which provided the most important information. These two becomes the running clowns of “The Government Inspector.”
Jennifer MacMillan scores well as the bloated and negligent warden of charities that worries if the czar’s spy will blame him for the abysmal conditions at the home he runs. She is also good as the mayor’s flirtatious wife who doesn’t want a political favor from Khlestakov as much as she’d like a change from her husband.
Alas, the wife is unrequired in her bid for attention from a younger man. But the mayor’s daughter, played with spunk by Francesca Piccioni, is not. Brock or Carroll create a wonderful moment when Khlestakov, leaving a room he entered the daughter, is a tad dazed with his hair mussed and clothes askew.
Paul McElwee is funny as the straightforward judge who hides his penchant for selling favorable verdicts in a display of comically somber rectitude. Christina May exposes the incompetence of both the town doctor, who can’t communicate with patients because he speaks no Russian, and as a police chief.
Brock intends “The Government Inspector” to be a romp, and it is. The good news Brock can keep up the high-speed fun while Gogol’s commentary on the honesty of authority comes through.
Janus Stefanowicz’s costumes match Stoessel’s set for wit. She drapes the officials in heavy, oversized coat that make them look as bureaucratic as they prove to be. She dresses Carroll’s Khlestakov in a handsome suit that makes the Carroll look as he is stepped directly from a Turgenev novel, a well-cut brown velvet coat over a cream colored shirt and a light green cravat.
“The Government Inspector” runs through Sunday, February 28, at Studio 5 on the fifth floor of the Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $25 to $20 and can be obtained by calling 215-285-0472 or by visiting www.idiopathicridiculopathyconsortium.org.