Sunday, February 21, 2010

Theatre review: "The Inspector General" at CMU-21st February 2010

CMU’s School of Drama offers what can certainly be called “ a world premiere” a new and modern adaptation of an internationally renowned play, Nicolai Gogol’s political satire The Inspector General. This version is by CMU faculty member Michael Chemers and it comes full of contemporary references, including some with deliberately local barbs. Director Jed Allen Harris, also on the faculty, has staged it as a raucous cartoon. Moreover the program book and lobby exhibits add pointed and colorful background about political corruption, the focal point of Gogol’s piece.

The mayor of a small town, his staff and cronies learn that an inspector from the national government is coming to look into how they govern. They also discover that he would arrive incognito. They panic. They fear that he will discover the depth of their chicanery and greed. Tying to find the visitor, they mistake a traveling con man for the inspector who then finds way to exploit them.

Mistaken identity has often been a source for comedy, of course, but here Gogol is using it to send up venality in high places. Chemers gets a lot of inventive mileage out of that, finding plenty of examples in modern American life. The references, in rather straightforward dialogue, no doubt provoke the laughter of recognition. From time to time he also turns in some amusing phrases along with justified profanity.

Director Harris’s conception actually takes center stage, rather than the script, turning the production into a wild, physically vigorous, loud grab bag of slapstick shtick. Clearly this provides great experience for the student actors, called upon to milk the characters every way possible. They do well with those demands, but seem to shout and rant a great deal, in constant motion. This means they often deliver their speeches as if wielding machine guns rather than taking careful aim with pistols. I find parallels with the Playhouse Conservatory production last month of Room Service, where speed and action blurred dialogue and character for which such students don’t have enough experience yet.

Harris and CMU casts have triumphed together in several outstanding productions in the last few years. They did so in a wonderfully funny take on Larry Gelbart’s Sly Fox. They likewise made Peter Barnes Red Noses a brilliant experience. Plus, more recently, Harris’ take on Aeschylus called The Oresteia Project remains another indelible theatre event. This looks like a good try but not as successful as those. Think of it as really valuable student training.

The Inspector General continues through February 27th at CMU’s Philip Chosky Theater, 412/268 2407

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