Review: ‘Inspector’ has fun, but satirical romp doesn’t quite pass with flying colors
I wanted to laugh uproariously through “The Government Inspector.” I didn’t.
But I did get in some good chuckles.
This energetic romp, which continues through Sunday, May 26, at California Arts Academy’s Severance Theatre, has some amusing individual performances and clever staging. But it never reaches a sustained level of hilarity nor the sharp, satirical impact it seems to promise.
Here’s a quick rundown:
The production: Hypo-Theatricals (formerly Simpson Theatricals) tackles this new adaptation by Jeffery Hatcher of Nikolai Gogol’s classic satirical Russian play, which was first written in 1836. Dakota Simpson directs. (One more performance remains: 8 p.m. Sunday, May 26.)
The storyline: When a rumor goes round a small, backwater Russian town that an incognito government agent is there rooting out corruption, the political power structure quakes –as well it should. (Everyone from the mayor on down is on the take. The school and hospital are run by incompetents. Bribery is endemic.) It just happens that a slightly suicidal former government clerk named Ivan Helestekov has taken up lodgings in town. The mayor and his minions figure he must be the “spy” and decide to ply him with flattery, alcohol, cash and (in an unplanned turn of events) the mayor’s daughter.
The design: The production has a scrappy charm, with its minimalist sets (by Antonio Olivera), amusing semi-period costumes (by Simpson and Brittany Zenz Toschi), and inspired lighting design (by Olivera and Simpson) offering a sly crackle to the proceedings.
The direction: The biggest flaw in Simpson’s enthusiastic stewardship of this material is letting the farce overwhelm the satire. Sure, there is a ton of silliness in the script, including sight gags, blustery wordplay and chances for physical antics. But Gogol’s dose of cerebral absurdity gets neglected here. (My favorite line, without a doubt, is when the mayor’s overbearing wife brags about her patrician roots, declaring, “Mine was a cultured upbringing. We had a book, and my mother whistled.” That moment just sort of sailed by.) Most important, the play also has a biting, almost caustic, sense of injustice that to me requires a simmering sense of melancholy and even anger. That (mostly) didn’t come across. By the time the mayor late in the show famously breaks the Fourth Wall (take that, Brecht!) and talks directly to the audience (“What are you laughing about? You are laughing about yourselves!”), it didn’t have the impact it should.
Related story: Preview: With ‘Government Inspector,’ corruption is the name of a very funny game
The acting: For the most part, it’s overdone. The shouting gets out of hand. Randall Kohlruss has some gem-like moments as the mayor, but he needs to turn the volume down, especially in the first act. (I much preferred him in the second act once he’d shifted to MAGA-inspired wear, complete with a dangerously long red tie, and seemed a little more subdued.) Justin Ray, as the hapless recipient of mistaken identity, plays the character too “sanely,” I think. Ivan Helestekov should be crazy; Ray comes across more as a startled, laidback surfer soaking up the rays of his newfound good luck. My favorites in the cast are Brittany Zenz Toschi as the mayor’s wife, Alexis Macedo as the mayor’s maid, and especially Michael Fidalgo, who toggles between a phlegmy postmaster and a soft-spoken, dry-as-Russian-dust servant. With the latter role, Fidalgo finds the wry dolefulness in the midst of the play’s hilarity. He’s the smartest one out of them all.