The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming–to Seattle Shakespeare Company (SSC).
Nicolai Gogol unleashed almost 200 years of laughter when he penned his 1836 play, “The Government Inspector,” a silly but scathing satire on the stupidity and arrogance of Imperial Russia.
Gogol’s mistaken-identity comedy will probably not grace the Russian stage under Putin’s iron thumb, or be performed at the White House. But, it will give Seattleites a humorous break from today’s headlines about Russia’s political meddling, corruption, and cover-up. As SSC puts it, “Bribery, Bureaucracy, and Buffoonery.”
“The Government Inspector” is Seattle Shakespeare Company’s first foray into Russian comedy, and Allison Narver’s directing debut at SSC. The comedy runs October 24-November 19. Expect physical antics, sight gags, and wacky mayhem.
Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher, Gogol’s play is a comedy of errors, satirizing human greed, incompetence, and the extensive political corruption of nineteenth century (and maybe modern…) Russia.
The crooked officials of a small Russian town—rumor says it’s called Donaldsberg in Hatcher’s adaptation–headed by the bamboozling Mayor Anton Antonovich, freak out over the news that the Tsar is sending an incognito inspector to their backwater town to investigate them. During a frenzy to cover up their considerable misdeeds, they receive a report that a suspicious person has already arrived. The whole village flies into a tailspin, attempting to avert disaster through bribery, lies, and a comic web of crooked deals.
That person, however, is not an inspector; it is Ivan Alexandreyevich Khlestakov, a foppish, out-of-work civil servant. When the officials–or should we say buffoons–accost the bewildered Khlestakov with offers of money and favors, he soon figures out what’s going on and has a field day by assuming the role of the Tsar’s right hand man. Keep in mind that everything that happens in “The Government Inspector” occurs over the course of one day.
Russian and Ukrainian dramatist and novelist Nikolai Gogol had tremendous influence on arts and culture in his country. “The Government Inspector,” one of only three plays he wrote, is considered the greatest comedy ever Russia has ever produced. And it was written in only two months.
Gogol created a collective image of Russian bureaucracy in which petty gossip, neglect, and embezzling can continue to work only if nobody knows it’s happening. The characters are so desperate to protect the corruption, only because it continues to benefit them. Sound familiar?
He didn’t create multiple comic storylines. Gogol’s characters all focus on the same thing…how to get out of their sticky situation. The humor comes from the inventive ways they go about it.
His character’s names have deeper meanings, especially funny if you speak the language. For example, the mayor of the town’s name is Anton Antonovich Skvoznik Dumakhanovsky. Translated into Ukrainian it means “a windbag fond of blowing his own trumpet.” Then there are the twin landowners. Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky, also funny, whatever their names mean.
The original idea for “The Government Inspector” came from Gogol’s friend Alexander Pushkin, the noted Russian writer and poet. Legend has it; he relayed a similar real life situation, encountered while visiting a remote town.
In fact, Tsar Nicolas I, after reading a copy, liked it so much that he requested the first theatrical production…even though it lampooned much of what was wrong under his rule. However, soon after the production, Gogol fled Russia to avoid the rancor of government officials. His self-exile lasted 12 years until he eventually returned to Moscow. He died at age 42.
Mistaken identity is by no means a new concept. Over the last 100-plus, there have been hundreds of copycats around the world. In the US, “Inspecting Carol” (1991), by Daniel J. Sullivan, paid homage to Gogol’s comedy in a loose adaptation performed at Seattle Repertory Theatre.
A 1949 musical comedy film, “Inspector General,” starred Danny Kaye as the bumbling imposter. Although Kaye was hilarious, as always, the film opened to mediocre reviews.
In England, an episode of “Fawlty Towers” has a similar story line about mistaken identity when a guest shows up at the hotel and is thought by Basil Fawlty to be a hotel inspector but who is in fact a spoon company manager. At the end of the episode Basil cream pies the spoon manager.
Even dogs got into the act. The PBS series “Wishbone” adapted the story for an episode about the clever and adventurous Wishbone, the Jack Russell Terrier. The canine brought classic literature to life by imagining himself as the live action hero in each tale.
In Russia, the literary icon, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, author of “Crime and Punishment” and “The Brothers Karamazov,” among other tomes, actually played the postmaster in a charity performance of Gogol’s comedy to benefit the “Society for Aid to Needy Writers and Scholars” in April 1860.
SSC’s production of “The Government Inspector” features a cast of 12 actors, six who play multiple characters—16 in all. R. Hamilton Wright portrays Khlestakov. (The same character was the inspiration for the character of Wayne in “Inspecting Carol,” a part originated by Wright at Seattle Rep.)
Rob Burgess plays the corrupt Mayor Anton Antonovich, while Sara Waisanen plays his vain and flirtatious wife Anna Andreyevna, and Shanna Allman plays their sullen daughter Marya Antonovna. The actors playing landowner twins Dobchinsky and Bobchinsky, Arjun Pande and Kevin Kelly, are no strangers to playing twins. They portrayed the Dromio twins in SSC’s 2015 production of “The Comedy of Errors.”
“The Government Inspector” is SSC’s third production of an adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher, making him the company’s second most produced playwright. Other Hatcher adaptations produced were “The Turn of the Screw” and “A Servant of Two Masters.”
Russian humor may be different from American humor. After all, Chekov thought his plays were comedies. But “The Government Inspector” should tickle your funny bone. We suggest you lift a glass of vodka, and shout “Nostrovia,”
“The Government Inspector” runs Oct 24-Nov. 19 in Center Theatre at Seattle Center; tickets range from $30-$55, discount tickets are available for groups of 10 or more; Seattle Shakespeare Company box office (206) 733-8222 or online at www.seattleshakespeare.org.
Hamilton Wright: Khlestakov, a petty clerk mistaken for an inspector
Rob Burgess: Mayor Anton Antonovich, corrupt mayor
Sara Waisanen: Anna Andreyevna, mayor’s vain and flirtatious wife.
Shanna Allman: Marya Antonovna, their sullen daughter
Susanna Burney (Hospital Director/InnKeeper’s Wife/Corporal’s Wife)
Brace Evans (Svetsunov (Police Chief)/ Imperial Messenger)
Douglas Fries (Doctor/Waitress/Chernaeyev)
Jonelle Jordan (Osip/Postmaster)
Kevin Kelly (Bobchinsky)
Imogen Love (Judge/Locksmith’s Wife/Grusha)
Arjun Pande (Dobchinsky)
Brandon J. Simmons (School Principal/Pentelaeyev)
Jeffrey Hatcher. (Adaptor, from original by Nikolai Gogol)
Allison Narver (Director)
Julia Welch (scenic design)
Pete Rush (costume design)
Andrew D. Smith (lighting design)
Evan Mosher and Robertson Witmer (sound design)
Crystal Dawn Munkers (movement and choreography).
Two Russian Jokes Translated, courtesy of SSC
К американцу, летящему в самолёте российкой авиакомпании, подходит стюардесса и спрашивает:
– Желаете отобедать?
– А какой выбор?
– Да или нет.
Joke 1 Translated
An American is taking a flight operated by Russian airlines.
The flight attendant comes up to him and asks, “Would you like to eat?”
“What are the options?” he asks.
“Yes and no.”
Три пары обедают вместе в ресторане.
– Передай мне мёд, медовая моя!
– Передай мне сахар, сахарная моя!
– Передай мне мясо… (подумав)… корова!
Joke 2 Translated:
Three couples are having dinner in a restaurant.
The American asks his wife, “Pass me the honey, honey!”
The English asks his wife, “Pass me the sugar, sugar!”
The Russian asks his wife, “Pass me the meat…(he pauses to think)… cow!”
Nicholai Gogol Bio
Nikolai Gogol was born on April Fool’s Day in 1809 in the Ukraine, then part of Russia. His classmates at school, observing his various physical and social peculiarities, nicknamed him ‘‘the mysterious dwarf.’’ In 1828, Gogol arrived in Saint Petersburg, obtaining a low-level, low-paying post in the government bureaucracy. After an equally unrewarding stint at a second government post, Gogol began teaching at a girl’s boarding school in 1831.Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, Gogol’s two-volume collection of stories, derived from Ukrainian folklore, was published in 1831 and 1832 and was instantly well received, gaining Gogol the attention of Aleksandr Pushkin, Russia’s leading literary figure, who provided him with the idea for the plot ofThe Government Inspector. In 1834, Gogol began a position at Saint Petersburg University. Gogol quickly proved himself a resounding failure, and left this post after only one year. During that year, Gogol published two books of short stories, Mirgorod and Arabesques; a collection of essays; as well as two plays, Marriage and The Government Inspector. The Government Inspector was brought to the attention of the Tsar, who liked it so much that he requested the first theatrical production (1836). Gogol, reacting to heavy criticism by the government officials his play lampooned, declared that ‘‘everyone is against me’’ and left Russia. He spent the next twelve years in self-imposed exile. After Pushkin died in 1837, Gogol inherited the mantle as the leading Russian writer of the day. Gogol’s literary masterpiece Dead Souls and the first edition of his collected works were published in 1842. In 1848, he returned to Russia, settling in Moscow. In 1852, Gogol died, age 42, as the result of an extreme religious fast and absurdly bad doctoring.
Jeffrey Hatcher’s Bio
Jeffrey Hatcher’s Broadway credits include Never Gonna Dance (book). Off-Broadway credits include Three Viewings and A Picasso at Manhattan Theatre Club; Scotland Road and The Turn of the Screw at Primary Stages; Tuesdays with Morrie (with Mitch Albom) at the Minetta Lane; Murder by Poe, The Turn of the Screw, and The Spy at The Acting Company; and Neddy at American Place. Other credits include Compleat Female Stage Beauty,Mrs. Mannerly, Murderers, Mercy of a Storm, Smash, Korczak’s Children, To Fool the Eye, Confederacy of Dunces, The Critic, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hydeand others at The Guthrie, Old Globe, Yale Rep, The Geffen, Seattle Rep, Cincinnati Playhouse, Cleveland Playhouse, South Coast Rep, Arizona Theater Company, San Jose Rep, The Empty Space, Indiana Rep, Children’s Theater Company, History Theater, Madison Rep, Intiman, Illusion, Denver Center, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Milwaukee Rep, Repertory Theater of St. Louis, Actors Theater of Louisville, Philadelphia Theater Company, Huntington, Shakespeare Theatre (D.C.), Asolo, City Theater, Studio Arena and dozens more in the U.S. and abroad. Film and television credits include Stage Beauty, Casanova, The Duchess, Mr. Holmes, and episodes of “Columbo” and “The Mentalist.” Grants/awards: NEA, TCG, Lila Wallace Fund, Rosenthal New Play Prize, Frankel Award, Charles MacArthur Fellowship Award, McKnight Foundation, Jerome Foundation, Barrymore Award Best New Play, and IVEY Award Best New Play. He is a member and/or alumnus of The Playwrights Center, the Dramatists Guild, the Writers Guild, and New Dramatists.