Seattle Shakespeare Company presents a delirious rendering of “The Government Inspector,” Nikolai Gogol’s knockabout lampoon of Russian provincialism in particular and human foibles in general.
So maybe the Kremlin is hijacking our social media and messing with our elections. Yet just when we need a lift, a classic Russian farce that has kept people chortling since the 1830s returns to tickle us.
Want to cure someone of a case of slapstick-phobia? Seattle Shakespeare Company has just the remedy: a delirious rendering of “The Government Inspector,” Nikolai Gogol’s knockabout lampoon of Russian provincialism in particular and human foibles in general.
Staged with crafty aplomb by Allison Narver, and animated by a well-oiled cast of prized zanies, the show beckons us in with a ballet of mobile doors. Doors are a key element in any farce, and tumbling out of them in Julia Welch’s handy set design are Gogol’s perfect fools — a whole village of them.
‘The Government Inspector’
By Nikolai Gogol. Through Nov. 19 at Center Theatre, Seattle Center; $30-$55 (206-733-8228 or seattlecenter.com).
“The Government Inspector” reminds us that people tend to be at their worst when grasping, clawing, bribing and otherwise currying favor. And so when a local postman (who reads everyone’s mail) announces a government official is arriving to give his backwater hamlet the once-over, there’s a stampede in the rush to impress.
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The chief impresser is the mayor (the deliciously, giddily repellent Rob Burgess), a pompous swine who covets a glorious, undeserved appointment in the Russian capital. Though he muses aloud about whether to wine and dine the official, and whether to bribe or not bribe him, the answer is, of course, yes on all counts. And the bumbling minions around him follow suit.
Soon they are flattering this visitor to their town, giving him a grand tour of their teeny-tiny hospital and dysfunctional school, showering him with every bit of cash they can scrape up. Too bad the fellow is actually no official at all — just a dissolute ne’er-do-well and lowly government clerk without a kopeck to his name, who merrily plays along. “How can I refuse such generous and improbable people?” he asks.
Mistaken-identity plots abound in the annals of comedy, and for good reason. There’s a vicarious charge when watching unlikely schlemiels (in, say, “The Life of Brian” or “The Big Lebowski”) stumble into a topsy-turvy world that mistakes them for someone far more important than they are.
As the impostor Khlestakov, R. Hamilton Wright isn’t the decadent young blade “Ugly Betty” alum Michael Urie portrayed in a recent Off Broadway turn. (Like this production, the Off Broadway version also used Jeffrey Hatcher’s crackling English-language version of the play.) But Wright is marvelous on his own terms, and winks to middle age when he and his sardonic servant choose from an array of wigs to cover his balding pate.
Sporting a goofy thatched hairpiece, Wright’s comic timing is impeccable. He glows with awe, lust and lip-smacking greed as he sucks up bribes, mocks his sycophants and romances both the mayor’s social climber wife (Sara Waisanen, well-upholstered by costume designer Pete Rush) and sullen daughter (the hilarious, gothed-out Shanna Allman). And yes, his pratfalls are truly a hoot.
But “The Government Inspector” is just as much about the “stupid, provincial nobodies” who get conned. Two sweetly pathetic, look-alike nincompoops (played with daft naiveté by Arjun Pande and Kevin Kelly) long for nothing more than having their names spoken aloud in the hallowed halls of St. Petersburg. On the more cynical end of the shtick is the inimitable Imogen Love as the mayor’s sly, ghastly servant.
Though “The Government Inspector” is a blithe romp, outfitted here with vivacious dances and Russian-esque music, its cynical outlook and exposé of grotesque corruption were scandalously realistic in Gogol’s day. Either Czar Nicholas I didn’t get the barbs, or was richly amused by them, when he championed the play and ensured its production.
By the way, this is the first Russian classic Seattle Shakespeare Company has presented. And if Narver’s work here is any indication, then come what may in international relations, it should not be the last.