From Russia with laughs

Gogol joins the Shakespeare Festival

photo by Patrick Campbell

One of my high school teachers believed — decades before the advent of Avenue Q — that everyone is just a little bit racist. He claimed, therefore, that the best anyone could do was to be “actively anti-racist,” and I have always done my best to follow that credo. So take the next bit as the joke it is tended and leave the torches and pitchforks in the shed.

Apparently, “Russian humor” is not the oxymoron that, say, German mercy, French courage or English frivolity are. (Again, totally kidding. I’m sure that at this very moment somewhere a German is rescuing a kitten from a tree, a Frenchman is standing up to a roomful of Hell’s Angels who besmirched his girlfriend’s good name and an Englishman is making “Caloo! Caloo!” noises while spinning his propeller beanie.) I mean, I never believed the entire artistic landscape of America’s once fearsome, super-powered opponent in the race to blow the tits off the world was completely devoid of comedy. I just didn’t expect it to be so much like Three’s Company.

And make no mistake, Nikolai Gogol’s The Inspector General, presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, is but a Janet and Chrissy away from that sitcom hit of the ’70s and ’80s. As with pretty much every episode of Three’s Company, The Inspector General revolves around a case of mistaken identity. The corrupt leaders of a provincial Russian community learn that an inspector general has been dispatched to their little burg. If the inspector general learns of the deficiencies and inequities perpetrated by the ruling regime, the consequences could be dire.

Desperate to retain their power, the mayor (Gary Alan Wright/Evgeny Weigel) and his cronies seek out the inspector general in hopes of bribing him into submission. They decide that a recently arrived, seemingly entitled traveler from St. Petersburg, the home base of the inspector general, must be their man. Khlestakov (Stephen Weitz/ Alexandr Slavski) is a rascally official of dubious morals, and in this he is a perfect match for the sleazy elite of the town. He is not, however, the inspector general.

Khlestakov spends the rest of the play fleecing the mayor and his crew of as much money, luxury and tail as possible, all of which they happily supply, thinking that they are effectively protecting their interests. Whether he is found out for the fraud that he is and whether the real inspector general turns up I will not disclose. Suffice it to say that, as with Jack, the Ropers and the barflies down at the Regal Beagle, most everything works out — one way or the other — in the end.

I was lucky enough to see one of the two performances of The Inspector

General during which certain key roles — the mayor, the health commissioner (Erik Sandvold/Vladimir Sergiakov), the postmaster (Geoffrey Kent/ Nikolay Timoshenko) and Khlestakov — were played by actors speaking in both English and Russian. From time to time, the American actor in the role would leave the stage mid-scene and be replaced by his Russian counterpart, or vice versa. The changes themselves were handled smoothly and were often in and of themselves hilarious. Hearing large chunks of the dialogue delivered in Russian did not, as promised by CSF honcho Philip Sneed, keep me from following the action. As I don’t know Russian, it did keep me from understanding the actual words being spoken, but its novelty outweighed the stranger-in-a-strangeland effect.

The Russian actors, all of whom played their roles in the major Russian production of the play, delivered broad, comfortable performances. Gary Alan Wright played the mayor with a delicious mix of greed and fear, and Lanna Joffrey and Jamie Ann Romero (who is also playing Juliet in Romeo and Juliet this season), as the mayor’s wife and daughter, respectively, consistently earned the largest laughs. If I had but one award to give out to the cast, however, it would have to go to Stephen Weitz. He once again proved that he is an actor of effortless professionalism whose comic chops are second to none.