Sunday, December 28, 2008

Review of Lantern Theatre's The Government Inspector

First published in Edge Philadelphia, 11-30-2008:

My 2008 Christmas wish: that Philadelphians will forego their presents this season and instead ask friends and relatives to donate money to the Lantern Theatre. That way, the Lantern can hire enough actors to properly stage a work like Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector.

The fault doesn’t lie in the actors that director David O’Connor cast -- in fact, the Lantern’s show includes one of Philadelphia’s best comedic talents (Tony Lawton), the city’s most capable character actor (Seth Reichgott), and Sarah Sanford, who I consider the single most versatile actress in the region. But those three, along with Luigi Sottile and David Ingram must together cover twelve parts, and the costume changes, slow-to-develop in-characterizations, and forced exits and entrances to accommodate actors playing multiple roles strangle the quick pace that a satire like "The Government Inspector" requires, sucking the life right out of this production.

Gogol’s simple, straightforward plot should make for an incredibly funny play. Tsar Nicholas I has sent a government inspector from St. Petersburg to a small town in Russia to report on the state of his realm. The Mayor (Reichgott), School Supervisor (Sanford), Judge (Ingram), and Hospital Director (Lawton) all worry that he’ll arrive and expose their corruption: classes filled with idiots, geese in the courtroom, and hospitals lined with dying villagers. Like all politicians, the last thing they want is to be exposed as idiots and lose their cushy well-paying patronage jobs.

In Armina LaManna’s translation, this simple premise consumes well over two hours and in O’Connor’s production of the overly dense script, the pacing suffers, the satire evaporates, and the only laughter left comes at the climax of well-executed, often painstakingly set up sight gags.

The cast performs admirably, but not even Lawton and Sanford’s versatility can revive the squandered humor of the play. Able to flesh out their roles, Reichgott and Sottile deliver outstanding performances as an infuriated Mayor and a petulant spoiled rich-kid respectively, and Ingram’s savvy servant adds depth. But despite the best efforts of its cast, this production needed at bare minimum one more actor to increase the pace and successfully capture the comedy.

Lawton’s Bobchinsky/Dobchinsky schizophrenia notion gets old quick (and it’s not that funny to begin with), and Sanford’s brilliant quartet of performances nearly gets swallowed up in the confusion of speaking through a puppet. Admittedly, the doll she carries leads to a spectacular joke late in the play, but I’d rather an evening of consistent, quick-witted humor than the slow, drawn out pacing under which this production labors. And until almost the end of the show (when the script reveals otherwise), I thought Sanford played her School Supervisor as a woman, further showing the limits of her quadruple-casting.

Millie Hiibel’s outrageous costumes of poofy-sleeved dresses and gold-braided drum major uniforms help with the characterizations and mesh well with the teetering house-of-cards aspect of Meghan Jones’ set. But the transitions, punctuated by the quickly tiresome conceit of "scene change" as the actors move props and hang signs, only lengthen the production-time and dilute any momentum in the action.

Perhaps I’m too jaded by current affairs to buy into Gogol’s particular satire of small-town politics, or the material’s too dated, too Russian and too obvious. (Only last year Putin created a brand new constitutional office just so he could stay in power.) But what is clear is that the Lantern’s budget is too meager to take on "The Government Inspector." Donations, anyone?

The Lantern Theater Company presents Armina LaManna’s translation of Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector. Playing until Dec. 28th at St. Stephen’s Theater, 10th and Ludlow, Philadelphia.

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