‘The Government Inspector’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company by Amanda Gunther

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Don’t be caught being a ‘Mayor Idiot’ by missing The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector. Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher and Directed by Michael Kahn, this amusing American adaptation satirizes corruption in the provincial bureaucracy and plays up the general humor found in such situations with grave mistaken identity. Under the assumption that a government inspector has been sent to his tiny town out in the Russian equivalent of the sticks, the mayor stirs up a flurry of commotion in an attempt to bribe the inspector to keep his position of power. But when a lowly government clerk on the run from his debts appears at the local inn, stories start and before you know it the whole party of power is kowtowing to the clerk like he’s the Tsar himself. A wildly entertaining satire with a sense of sinister subtlety this production will leave you feeling like quite the prize buffoon if you miss out.

Liam Craig (Osip) and Derek Smith (Hlestakov) in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of ‘The Government Inspector.’ Photo by Scott Suchman.

Set Designer James Noone spins two brilliantly contrasting sets, mounted upon a turn-table. The gilded study and home of the mayor, peeling slightly to reveal their true financial status, looks grandiose from a distance but upon closer inspection is a mockery of what a wealthy political figure would own, following suit with the rest of the show’s satire. The backside of the set is a derelict hovel; a room at the local inn decomposing around itself. Noone’s particular expertise shines through when this room becomes riddled with shotgun fire in the way that the set blows easily apart.

Costume Designer Murell Horton and Wig Designer Anne Nesmith create a wild world of absurdity in their unique designs especially for the female characters. Horton provides the mayor’s wife appears in an enormous gown that looks akin to a yellow orange and green striped lampshade on loan from a brothel. Her daughter is given an equally hideous and hilarious buttercup ball gown of taffeta and glitter to impress the inspector, a bright change from her gothic baby doll black frock. Nesmith sculpts wigs in a Dr. Seuss fashion with enormous stacked curls and whirls. Together these designers add another layer of preposterous humor to the already laughable production.

Hugh Nees as Bobchinsky and Harry A. Winter as Dobchinsky in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of ‘The Government Inspector.’ Photo by Scott Suchman.

Director Michael Kahn encourages his actors to play up their characters idiosyncrasies to the fullest. The gaggle of old geezers (David Sabin, Craig Wallace, and Lawrence Redmond) bluster about like old billowing chimneys at the dinner hour. And the dynamic that evolves among them is a dog-eat-dog struggle for power, motivated by greed and veiled well as a tight-knit camaraderie. Kahn coaxes the highest level of satirical humor from his cast without pushing them into the overdone category, making this performance a high-brow comedy that will appease the masses.

Taking the role of a female in a male dominated show is challenging enough but taking on the role of three different females is simply astonishing. Sarah Marshall, acting as Grusha the none-too-bright servant, the dwarfed innkeeper’s wife, and the humbled one-humped Corporal’s widow, creates three dynamic performances at are humorous and engaging as well as deeply developed in their nuances. As Grusha Marshall folds into the grotesque dim stereotype of the household servant. Her intellect is displayed as subpar at best through the funny faces she throws and the way she stifles her speech. As the snappy and commanding innkeeper’s wife she tackles the physical challenge of moving her character fluidly about as a dwarf, doing so on her knees for the duration of her appearance. Marshall’s performances are highly impressive, her ability to quickly differentiate between the three beyond satisfying.

Anna (Nancy Robinette) the mayor’s wife, and Marya (Claire Brownell) the mayor’s daughter compose the other side of femininity in Gogol’s work. Robinette and Brownell play well off one another, crafting that strained mother daughter relationship with ease. Robinette is aloof and haughty with a larger than life personality to match the gargantuan dresses they fit her with while Brownell is more subdued and despondent. Their respective love scenes with Ivan create an uproarious series of gestures and events on the stage that really drive the second act home to hilarity.

The Mayor (Rick Foucheux) manages to be the epitome of political corruption in a most loony manner. Foucheux grounds himself in his character’s serious nature, which is a brilliant foil for the more flighty and fruity Postmaster (Floyd King.) King provides a lighthearted touch to the dour situations with his blasé approach to opening everyone else’s mail and interjecting when he feels it’s appropriate. Both Foucheux and King add elements of quirky eccentricities to the show that keep it interesting.

And you aren’t seeing double when Dobchinsky (Harry A. Winter) and Bobchinsky (Hugh Nees) bounce onto the stage. Outfitted in green tweed and plaid matching suits with their shocks of curly orange hair protruding from beneath tall-piped straw hats Winter and Nees are the physical epitome of Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Winter and Nees move in unison, speak in unison at times and mimic each other’s rotund physicality with a sense of keen comedy. Being the sheer comedic relief in this already bright blazing satire their roles are a bit underrepresented despite being an absolute riot to watch.

But the real treat is the star of the show, Ivan (Derek Smith.) Smith is a carousel of characters all wrapped up in one. Portraying a lowlife at the bottom of the totem pole, guised as an important government inspector, and falling down drunk inbetween, Smith stuns the audience into pointed moments of shocking laughter as he turns the whole town topsy turvy with his antics. His narcissistic and boisterous approach to the character is the perfect foil to his servant Osip’s (Liam Craig) deadpan personality. Craig maintains a strong stance of apathy throughout the performance making Smith’s every move look even more absurd. Winning the hearts of the idiots in town Smith manages to cultivate a character within a character in a meta-acting sense; his performance is superb.

The cast of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of ‘The Government Inspector.’ Photo by Scott Suchman.

Get flabbergasted and shocked and have a good laugh as The Government Inspector turns its way into your heart! It’s a blast!.

Running Time: Two hours with one-15 minute intermission.

The Government Inspector plays through October 28, 2012 at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre – 450 7th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 547-1122, or purchase them online.