Tuesday, April 19, 2016

AUM: "The Inspector General"

Never shy about adding contemporary popular culture references to the canon of dramatic literature, director Mike Winkelman is at it again in Theatre AUM's production of Russian playwright Nikolai Gogol's The Inspector General, a Nineteenth Century satire. And for satire to hit its mark, the audience should see itself reflected on stage; so, not a bad choice considering an almost 200 year gap in time, and cultural distance as well.

What could aggravate some might delight others, and Mr. Winkelman's insertion of songs ("Those Were the Days", "Something's Coming", etc.), gender-switching some roles, Marx Brothers and Monty Python "silly walks", exaggerated make-up and wigs to match Val Winkelman's clownish costumes, adolescent suggestive punning of locations and character names, and numerous modern references to "update and enliven the audience's understanding of the piece", make his point.

Whereas Gogol focused his satire on individuals' greed, political corruption in 1830s Russia, and the stupidity of people in their everyday lives, these targets can certainly be applied across time and country; so Mr. Winkelman's assertion that contemporary American culture is not immune to the same criticism is fair game.

In a small town where everyone from the Mayor [David Wilson] to the least public servant is corrupt, word reaches them that an Inspector General is coming incognito to investigate them. Fearful of being found out, they plan a course of action that is tested when they hear that a stranger has been staying in a local inn for the past two weeks, and that his behavior suggests he might be the dreaded inspector. Concluding that he is the man in question, a delegation goes to the inn where they find Ivan Alexandrovitch Hlestakov [Kodi Robertson] has been running up hotel bills. Mistaking him for the inspector, they fawn on him and give him money, and the Mayor invites him to his own home, where the clever Hlestakov takes advantage of their error by pretending to be the inspector and flirts with both the Mayor's wife [Tara Fenn] and daughter [Amber Baldwin], going so far as to propose marriage to the daughter before skipping town when he fears being found out as a fraud. -- When word arrives that Hlestakov is not the man they thought him to be, and that the real Inspector General has arrived and wants an immediate meeting with the Mayor, chaos ensues and everyone realizes they will pay the price for their corruption.

Mr. Winkelman's 21-member ensemble of actors give full vigor to his concept; and there are several moments of sheer comic madness. A scene when the Mayor's wife and daughter are rivals in their attempt to seduce Hlestakov is made into a burlesque of two voluptuous women almost smothering the diminutive Hlestakov with their heaving breasts; and Ms. Fenn, Ms. Baldwin, and Mr. Robertson are delightfully unrestrained in their performances.

Mr. Wilson's Mayor is both a buffoon and a charlatan whose comeuppance is anticipated from the start, and he blunders in ways reminiscent of Will Ferrell. Yet, the impact of the satire hinges on Mr. Robertson's depiction of Hlestakov: his ability to switch gears in mid-sentence, his agility in many of the play's more slapstick moments, his combining of a superficial innocence with a quick-witted and devious bent to bilk the town's rubes of cash and property, are the components of a sophisticated portrayal of an inherently unlikable petty crook.

Perhaps this is the key to The Inspector General: there are no sympathetic characters, no good-guys among the group; so audiences can focus their attention on the satire and perhaps see themselves and contemporary culture with a critical eye.