The Government Inspector at the Shakespeare Theatre

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Washington knows corruption, so the Shakespeare Theatre faces a high bar with its current production of The Government Inspector. This 19th century Gogol romp takes us into a small Russian town where the local civic leaders attempt to bribe the undercover government agent from St Petersburg so he won’t report their routine abuse of the populace. In Gogol’s twist, the town leaders have mistaken the agent, who’s really a wastrel. He learns to love the proffered luxuries, which shapes the general comic arc of this popular play. Does this production surmount the hurdle for a town where media provides a steady diet of even more preposterous circumstances? Mostly.

Director Michael Kahn uses a modernization by Jeffrey Hatcher. We’re amused when the school superintendent asserts that one can’t fire a teacher, or that all the funds have gone to build better sports facilities. Diversion of funds have left the hospital with rooms large enough only for children. Those weren’t on Gogol’s list of corruptions. But rather than explore more contemporary parallels, Kahn instead makes cartoons of the characters–literally. Costume designer Murell Horton absurdly inflates the town leaders’ stomachs, faces are restructured with paint, and wigs abound. We’re not in the 19th century as much as in a Tim Burton film.

Derek Smith reprises his performance as the inspector from a New York production. He demonstrates that experience especially during a scene where, with too much alcohol, he expands on the reality of his low station in life. He knows the Tzar personally. Russian domestic policy begins with him He’s the true author of Pushkin works, and hopes his latest ghosted work is “good enough.” (Ba da boom.)

Rick Forcheaux carries the next heaviest load as the mayor, and remains within comic boundaries even as he changes from bribing groveler to haughty overload after he believes he’ll be elevated to governor by the inspector.

Most fun are the tweedledee/dum twins played by Harry Winter and Hugh Nees, who battle over their lines. The adaptable Sarah Marshall delights as a variety of irascible servants, playing an almost believable midget in one. Floyd King plays the letter-reading postman, too minor a role for Washington’s greatest comic actor. The only rational character among the cartoons is the inspector’s servant, ably played by Liam Osip.

Other efforts fall flat. Kahn paints the inspector’s lust interest, played by Claire Brownell, to look like Helen Bonham Carter from Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd. It’s difficult to believe this apparently valium-overdosed damsel could rise to her amorous assignment. The foreign doctor’s language stumbles prove overly wooden.

Director Kahn moves the action along well, and we worry appropriately about when the inspector will be revealed as a charlatan. Overall, the production entertains. Funny? Yes. Uproarious? No. Biting social commentary? No. This city of Jack Abramoff, Bobby Baker, Nicholas Biddle, the Keating Five, and so on has been there and done that, laughing and crying more than this Gogol can incite.

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