By Dale King
Student actors in Florida Atlantic University’s Department of Theatre and Dance have finally been loosed from a hurricane-prompted delay that postponed the opening of their 2017-2018 season from October to the period just before Thanksgiving.
As a result, the political satire, The Government Inspector, written by Nikolai Gogol in the mid-1830s and adapted into a rollicking, slapstick piece by Desmond Gallant, director of the FAU performance, opened last weekend and will close with shows Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
While the program doesn’t guarantee the audience will laugh out loud, we can attest that much of the gallery on opening night found themselves unable to contain their gleeful hoots – perhaps a good thing for a school whose mascot is an owl.
Gogol produced a couple of scathingly satirical plays during his career that exposed fictional government officials for their blatant and open misanthropy.
However, as Gallant says, “When Gogol wrote ‘The Government Inspector,’ he did so under the ever-present eye of the tsar and his censors. This meant he had to be careful about how far to push his social and political criticism.”
The director said he found “inherent irreverence” hidden between the play’s lines as he recrafted the work. Well, he sure did a great job freeing up what Gogol had to keep secret. And while the play is still about Russian officials, Gallant has Americanized it considerably.
But he did maintain the author’s intent of showing how irreverent and shady officials can so easily be snookered by someone more irreverent and shadier – not unlike some denizens of Capitol Hill. And that is likely why this show is such a pleasure to watch – to see those scoundrels get their comeuppance.
Gallant’s refashioning of the play is subtle, but effective. At one point, the mayor (Stephen Kaiser) promises “to make this town great again.” No need to explain that one.
The play begins with corrupt officials of a small Russian town gathering for their usual morning powwow with the mayor when they learn that an incognito government inspector will soon arrive to investigate them.
The flurry of activity to cover up their considerable misdeeds is interrupted by a report that someone has already arrived from St. Petersburg, and is not only staying at the inn, but is charging room and board to the crown.
The mayor and his henchmen arrive at the visitor’s room to find him and his valet haggling over the bill and food payments. Thinking the visitor is the inspector, the mayor begs to pay up, and invites the stranger and valet to stay at his home.
What the officials don’t know is that the guest is not the inspector, but is Khlestakov (played – and brilliantly underplayed – by Sean Patrick Gibbons), a foppish civil servant who has frittered away his cash.
Khlestakov doesn’t realize he has been mistaken for someone else, but he begins enjoying the officials’ terrified deference. One by one, they take the knee and offer Khlestakov rubles as bribes. The imposter likes this so much, he smugly begins to up the ante. When someone offers 400 rubles, he asks for 600. He shakes the mayor down for 1,000.
His fun escalates, but the ultimate humiliation is yet to come.
The Government Inspector is a total ensemble piece with plenty of oddball characterizations. Gibbons, who is splendid as Khlestakov, shows the comic side of his ability. It’s a total reversal of his excellent portrayal of Judas in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot last season.
Kaiser’s portrayal of the mayor is top-notch. The audience will notice his face becomes more and more clown-like as the show progresses.
Other players are wild and crazy, too: the judge (Gray West) with his unkempt curly wig; Osip, the valet, portrayed by versatile Erin Williams – recalled for her role as Anne Frank last season; Gaby Tortoledo as the domineering school superintendent dressed in an Army uniform for no apparent reason and Dobchinski (Trayven Call) and Bobchinski (Jesse Veliz), identical blonds who look alike and fight a lot.
Plaudits also go to costume designer Dawn Shamburger who had her hands full coming up with outfits that are just right. Scenic designer K. April Soroko and scenic artist John Shamburger have crafted a high-end office for the low-life characters.
The Government Inspector concludes with performances today at 7, Saturday at 2 and 7 and Sunday at 2 in the Studio One Theater on the Boca Raton campus of FAU. Tickets are available online at fauevents.com.