" . . . you've got to stand up for the imaginative world, the imaginative element in the human personality, because I think that's constantly threatened . . . People do have imagination and sensibilities, and I think that does need constant exposition." -- John Read

"To disseminate my subjective thoughts and ideas, I stealthily hide them in a cloak of entertaining storytelling, since the depth of my thinking, shallow at best, might be challenged by erudite experts." -- Curt Siodmak

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

From Russia with laughs: ‘Inspector General’ shines at CSF

Khlestakov (Stephen Wright) accepts a "loan" from the Mayor (Gary Alan Wright) in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of "The Inspector General." [Photo by Patrick Campbell/CU Communications]
Greed! Corruption! Lust! Lies! Stupidity!

No, it’s not a new reality show. It’s an OLD reality show, and it’s still true to life. Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 comic play, “The Inspector General,” is presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival with hilarious, absurd verve – by far the most adventurous and successful of all four productions at the Festival this summer.

The production is presented with the aid of a cultural-exchange team from Vladivostok, Russia. Staff from the Maxim Gorky Theater in Vladivostok, including “General” director, Efim Zvenyatsky, are old comrades-in-arms of the CSF’s artistic director, Philip Sneed.

The bright idea to bring them over and have them work with the Festival pays off. A completely different style comes into play, a raucous circus approach that dynamites the fourth wall, lets all kinds of on- and off-topic gags in, and gives us a humbling picture of humanity as well.

“General” gives us a look-see into the would-be movers and shakers of a small provincial town in Russia. The Mayor (Gary Alan Wright), the Postmaster (Geoff Kent), the Judge (Sam Sandoe), the Health Commissioner (Erik Sandvold) and the Superintendent of Schools (Mark Rubald) are a cynical, corrupt, pompous bunch that serve themselves and not the citizenry.

Word comes that a powerful high official, the Inspector General, who can examine all government functions and punish wrongdoers, is coming, and is traveling incognito. The mayor and his cronies misidentify that man as Khlestakov (Stephen Weitz), a no-account petty official who is stuck in town after gambling away all his money.

As we usually say in these circumstances, complications ensue. Not only is Khlestakov happy to use the mistake to lord it over all and “borrow” huge sums from his frightened hosts, but he puts the make on both the mayor’s wife (Lanna Joffrey) and daughter (Jamie Ann Romero). As time wears on, Khlestakov’s lies about his importance and accomplishments swell to zeppelin proportions – by the end he fancies himself a near-divine being – and, indeed, to these bowers and scrapers he is.

Gogol’s genius is in letting the characters condemn themselves out of their own mouths. What makes the play a classic is that these issues are universal – at least whenever society fractures into haves and have-nots. Zvenyatsky’s burlesque approach, complete with silly sound effects, slapstick and other buffoonery, opens the play out and lets in the audience, instead on trying to impose a naturalistic model on the action.

It's really a play in the sense of having fun. The actors are much more like sketch comics here because they don't have to portray characters as much as they need just to be efficient joke delivery systems. It's a much more technical exercise, which fortunately everyone onstage has down pat. It's a ballet of bellylaughs.

Vladimir Koltunov’s set and costume design reinforces the sense of eras colliding and commingling, and sets us in an exploded, cartoony landscape. Everyone in the play is an ass – and it’s only a matter of perceived power that determines whether they get theirs kissed or not.

Who wins? Who loses? Go see and figure it out for yourself, as you comb the confetti out of your hair.

“The Inspector General” is presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through Aug. 13 in the University Theatre on the campus of the University of Colorado. For tickets and information, please visit coloradoshakes.org or call 303-492-0554.