The best comedies are serious business. The whole spectrum of human frailty is meat and drink for the great comic writers, and it takes a profound intelligence to make us laugh at human beastliness. Nikolay Vasilyevich Gogol, a nineteenth-century Russian with a gift for satirical realism, was one such brain. His influence reached giants like Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov and Nabokov, and his The Inspector General is considered one of the greatest Russian plays. But like any classic comedy, it's only as good on stage as the cast that delivers it. And the Compass Theatre Company doesn't deliver.
Gogol's mistaken-identity plot is straightforward enough, and it's character that drives this testy tale. The story opens in a corrupt small town in outer Russia (inner Russia being St. Petersburg), where the mayor learns that an inspector general is expected at any time to check into cheating in local government agencies. The mayor's a bribetaker and extortioner (like every other local official), and he panics. Mistaking a low-level government clerk for the formidable inspector, he starts engaging in some heavy bribing of his own.
The man the mayor's afraid of is Klestakov, a fool who has squandered his limited resources with high living. Gogol may even have been mocking himself with this character, since he once served as an inept government clerk. Then, too, Klestakov is fond of dropping names--the most important of which is "Pushkin." Aleksandr Pushkin really was Gogol's friend and mentor, even suggesting the mistaken-identity theme to Gogol: It seems Pushkin was once mistaken for a high official by a small-town mayor.
But if the play is intended as self-parody, Gogol is too hard on himself. Klestakov goes on to brag about how he will one day be a general and even claims that he wrote the libretto for Mozart's famous opera The Marriage of Figaro. The knave is delusional. But he is also calculating: His bragging is designed to ensnare the mayor's beautiful wife and pretty, dim daughter.
Meanwhile, all the other corrupt officials in town bribe the "inspector," too. We soon realize that this endemic corruption has particularly grim implications for the townsfolk--especially the children, widows and prisoners.
Just as Klestakov has finished fleecing the officials, his servant learns that the real inspector is on his way, and the two make their escape. Gogol takes one parting shot at the petty thievery of the officials and their wives, and the play ends on a giddy, sardonic note.
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None of Gogol's characters are sympathetic. The play is peopled by dolts and rascals, so the humor of the piece depends on the ability of the actors to build layers of absurdity. The best performance belongs to Charles Berendt as the mayor. With his bushy gray mane, he struts and pounces around the stage, a tiger one moment and a frustrated monkey the next. He has a knack for gestures that underscore his character's nasty intentions, and he gives his performance enough grit to grate.
Harry A. Cruzan makes an affable moron as Bobchinsky, a member of the mayor's entourage. The rest of the cast, however, just never gets into the spirit of the piece. The performances are unfocused and often lamentably wooden.
Russian government censors tried to stop Gogol's first production in 1836. But the czar liked it, laughed at it and suffered it to fly. The fact that it amused the man whose government harbored just such a pack of weasels indicates how funny The Inspector General ought to play. And it would have, too--if only the Compass players had taken the job of portraying those weasels seriously enough.
The Inspector General, through June 7 at the New Denver Civic Theatre, 721 Santa Fe Drive, 595-3821.