Putin’ the slapstick back in Russia

Russian stereotypes arrive at the Guthrie in play form.

Jason Zabel

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“The Government Inspector”

WHEN: July 11ñAug. 24
WHERE: Guthrie Theater, Wurtele Thrust Stage
TICKETS: $24ñ$69. 612.377.2224 www.guthrietheater.org

how does a play that’s light on plot manage to keep an audience from nodding off? By beefing up the characters, and by working quirkiness into every burst of dialogue and spontaneity into each eruption of action. It’s the formula of myriad successful sitcoms, from “Will and Grace” to “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Throw a couple of loopy characters into a pot, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and chuckle yourself into an innocuous, distant land where wit and good humor are exchanged like elephant tusks on the black market.

Such is the formula of the Guthrie Theater’s “The Government Inspector.” The play – originally penned in the midñ1830s by Russian realist Nikolai Gogol and revamped for the Guthrie by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher – is set among a gaggle of unscrupulous, bribable Russian civil servants who hear news of the arrival of a government inspector. Though the Russian folk are portrayed as carefree and affable in their ascension to happiness (read: these Ruskies will do anything the wrong way if it means a quick ruble or a Vodka buzz), the one thing they all fear is the Czar’s wrath. Unfortunately for them, the government inspector is the individual responsible for reporting dishonesty and corruption to the Czar. And even more unfortunate, they learn that the government inspector will be traveling and observing incognito. Here comes the drama: The collection of eccentric peasants mistakenly identify the government inspector as a down-and-out noble’s son, Ivan (played boisterously by Hunter Foster), whose exaggerated ego is matched only by his ability to woo women (or at least pay for their services). And the gigglefest begins.

At first, the play is good-humored; inoffensiveness is a turn-off to any crowd more familiar with Sarah Silverman than with Mary Tyler Moore, but the quick wit of Hatcher’s dialogue soon has everyone laughing.

Of special note is a pair of seemingly identical landowners by the names of Dobchinsky and Bobchinsky, who parade into the mayor’s home wearing matching cardinal-red costumes that look more Bozo the Clown than beet farmer. The peculiarity of these two men (Lee Mark Nelson and Kris L. Nelson, respectively) never wears off, despite a cast of characters that seems straight out of the “Wizard of Oz” or “Alice in Wonderland.” In fact, the costumes are usually laugh-worthy. The mayor’s harlot wife wears ostentatious, overly bowed gowns to impress the inspector; a foreign-born doctor sports an androgynous skirt-like bottom mixed with a man’s turban and dress coat and almost all the men proudly wear handlebar mustaches and have drooping bellies. At a glance, each actor is playing a caricature, and the audience laughs because of it.

There are a few fumbles. The occasional quip feels stale and overused, and the actors intermittently and awkwardly talk to only the audience to make their intentions known. At one point, a servant breaks from the action to tell the audience that conversing with his master is “like talking to meat.” There are at least a handful of slapstick routines that add energy to the production, but they sometimes feel like a “Three Stooges” rip-off. (Two large men become stuck in a single doorframe! A crowd of buffoons hide in a closet!)

But, for every moment when the production loses points because of excessive slapstickery, there are a handful of times when the audience is collectively clapping along with the play’s jolly rhythm. And, in the end, the happiness gained from a quickly earned ruble or shot of potent potato juice seems to be all that matters.