Partway through The Squabble, I did something I've never done before in all my years of faithful and happy attendance at Buntport: I glanced at my watch to see how much longer we had to go.
Based on Nikolai Gogol's "The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich," The Squabble tells the story of two neighbors in a Ukrainian village who begin as inseparable companions and become deadly enemies over a meaningless epithet flung by one at the other. The original is grotesque, odd and almost surreal, poking fun at rural society, legalism, bureaucracy and human nature. There's a nod to Romanticism, including a narrator who apologizes periodically for not being more poetic, and the characters are broadly and absurdly sketched.
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Reading Gogol takes an imaginative effort: You have to try to transport yourself into his time and place, guess at the manners, politics and culture he's mocking and adjust to his humor. (Someone once said that reading literature in translation is like making love through a blanket; I think this is particularly true of jokes.) Instead, Buntport has transported the action to some fictive and unnamed place that feels as if it's halfway between the United States and nineteenth-century Europe. The Ivans have become Bob Boxinoxingworth and Bob Luggalollinstop; narration is provided in part by the former's pig. But this effort only occasionally captures the flavor of the original, and the updated humor that the company's inserted — the names, for example; jokes about mints and bad breath substituted for observations about snuff — aren't that funny. In a concept that could have been inspired, all the action takes place in a huge trough of real mud — Buntport's version of Gogol's "truly magnificent puddle" — on which the actors tromp, shove each other and sometimes skid. They wipe their boots continually on squares of cloth, which then get pinned onto moving clotheslines. You can see what the company is going for: a representation of the mean, mud-bound spirit of the little town where pigs and chickens wander the streets, and also of the mud-wrestling between the protagonists. But though the mud provides some good bits of business, particularly for the fastidious Boxinoxingworth, it's not really integrated with the action. Nor is your very natural desire to see everyone finally scrambling and wrestling in it ever satisfied. Even though there's no mud fight in the original story and it would be hell on costumes, why provide such a tempting, squishy mess if you're not going to go all the way?
Erik Edborg and Brian Colonna certainly go all the way in the main roles. These two actors create characters that are fully articulated and insanely funny. Colonna, hugely padded, is a man almost immobilized by his own girth, but makes up for it with a booming voice and an almost desperate air of authority. (Colonna usually gives his characters high, heady voices, so this is an interesting change.) And I can safely say you'll never see anyone in life or again on stage who even faintly resembles Edborg's Bob Boxinoxingworth. Wearing a girlish curly wig and absurdly decorated coat, as thin as Luggalollinstop is fat, he's epicene without being effeminate in any of the usual ways, and his crazed and precise mannerisms are an astonishment. While these two are engaged in their quarrel, you're riveted.
Presented by Buntport through June 6, 717 Lipan Street, 720-946-1388, www.buntport.com.
No one else has created a character this specific, however, and Evan Weissman, Erin Rollman and Hannah Duggan, each playing two roles, end up scuttling around the stage, making faces, using funny voices, gesticulating and wearing silly wigs. Rollman, in particular, seems to be utilizing sketch-comedy characterizations: Both the people she portrays have irritatingly shrill voices; neither speaks as if thinking the words before saying them. The Buntporters are hugely talented, among the most hilarious performers around. Surely they know that nothing kills comedy as fast as trying to be funny.
It's very possible that Gogol is unstageable; in any case, mixing the nineteenth-century Russian writer with Buntport's comic sensibilities simply never jells. A satire, the story has no forward momentum — and on stage, as with the original — it grinds to a sad, inevitable halt. Just not soon enough for me.