Director Connor McCanlus’ deep experience as a comedian and improv artist shines in Throughline Theatre Company’s uproarious production of The Inspector General. McCanlus doesn’t limit the production to dialogue-driven humor. He is attuned to character and layers in well-timed physical comedy that spans the overt to the nuanced. The County Court Judge (Hazel Carr Leroy) pulls at his shirt and breathes heavily when the Postmaster (Rachelmae Pulliam) dramatically reads a racy letter aloud, hips swaying. Four doors on the set are often slammed in synchrony, reminding us this is a play about dramatic entrances and exits. The doors are so close they’re practically adjoining, so their very presence evokes a comedic air. Local gossips Bobchinski (Michael McBurney) and Dobchinski (Samwise Riley) were clearly Tweedledee and Tweedledum in another life. The two stooges, both in black bowler hats, try to enter the same door at the same time, their round bodies filling the doorframe as each tries to pop free in front of the other.
The Inspector General centers on the mishaps resulting from a case of mistaken identity regarding a visiting government official. Nikolai Gogol’s play was first performed in April 1836, but it’s surprisingly modern. Much of this is due to the fresh take McCanlus brings it. When provincial government officials learn the Inspector General is coming from the big city of St. Petersburg, they quickly scramble on how to cover up and reposition their rampant bribetaking, misdirection of funds, and decadent personal gains at the public expense. Hmm, sound strikingly contemporary? Unfortunately, Gogol shows us the abuse of power is a timeless tale. With accusations of payoffs and personal gains making daily headlines in the current political climate, Gogol’s work seems ever more relevant.
The Governor (Everett Lowe) perfectly captures the sweaty freneticism of a man desperate to keep his house of cards from falling. He frantically gives advice to each of his fellow government officials that can only be described as slapping lipstick on a pig. He suggests the Commissioner of Charity and Warden of the Hospital (Chelsea Bartel) put patients one to a bed and top each with a clean nightcap. As hypocritical as her compadres, the Charity Commissioner with her Barbie-cocked arm and perennially dangling cigarette wears a designer suit and pearls. Costume designer Ali Roush wisely designs a white dress suit, a nice foil to the dirty hospital conditions that shows how removed the Commissioner is from the daily toil and reinforces her crimes of the white collar variety. Bartel’s black cat-eye eyeliner gives her an omnipresent look of abashed shock. The only charity coffers she cares to fill are her own, but Bartel neatly flips on a pretense of caring for the underserved in front of the supposed Inspector General (Gregory Tomasino).
Ultimately, the government officials solve the problem via the means they know best. They plan to bribe the Inspector General. They hope he’ll accept the funds and look the other way so they can continue with business as usual. Act II opens with a parade of officials coming to awkwardly speak with him, assure him all is well, and offer him an envelope of cash. Like any case of mistaken identity, the center cannot hold, so the play explores the indignant discovery that the Inspector General is not who they thought he was. Tomasino plays Khlestakov/the supposed Inspector General with a thoughtful lightness. He’s initially unaware why he’s receiving the royal treatment, but he accepts it unquestioningly. He quickly mirrors the attitude of the local officials, brazenly and happily accepting their donations in exchange for his murmured assurances, showing the frighteningly lightning speed of power’s corruptive forces. Gogol comedically suggests we’re all inclined to be the worst versions of ourselves when the opportunity presents itself.
The play is full of comic asides and gender-bending, making it reminiscent of a Shakespearean comedy. McCanlus does an admirable job of holding the line between chaos and clarity. The town officials mistake the supposed Inspector General’s girlfriend, Osip (Jalina K. McClarin), for his manservant, surfacing how expectation shapes perception. Osip is more perceptive than her partner and has one of the great asides as she lightly quips, “How easy it is to play the man.”
Far less easy is playing the role of artistic director at any theatre company. The Inspector General marks artistic director Sean Sears’ final production after 10 years at Throughline, and Sears goes out on a high note with this memorably worthy swansong. Throughline Theatre Company’s production of The Inspector General continues through August 18th at the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre. Visit Throughline Theatre online where you can also purchase tickets via their website.
Photos by Rick Moore.
Categories: Archived Reviews