Sunday, Sept. 13, 2009

In The Details: The Rep's The Government Inspector

By Russ Bickerstaff
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The Milwaukee Rep opened its season this past week with a production of modern playwright Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of the Nikolai Gogol political comedy The Government Inspector. Featuing a cast largely consisting of talented Rep Resident Acting Company Members directed by exiting Rep Artistic Director Joseph Hanreddy, the Rep’s Government Inspector is brilliantly executed. And though there’s going to be a comprehensive review of the show in this week’s Shepherd by a seasoned theatre critic, the big problem for anyone writing a review of a show like this is the details. Hatcher’s an alarmingly clever comic playwright who populates his scripts with a relentless shower of comic bits. Hatcher’s comedy is in the details. The brilliance of the Rep’s production lies in such details. Here are some of those details that are certain to be omitted in the more comprehensive review of the show due out later this week.

--New York-based Scenic Designer Neil Patel makes interesting use of the space on the stage. A vast, crimson wood frame dominates the stage as the audience enters. Beyond that, a vast, barren landscape can be seen . .  . there’s such an amazing sense of depth. Clouds can be seen drifting across the sky in a delicately painted Thomas C. Hase lighting backdrop. “Reveezor,” the original Russian title of the play is painted in large, skewed black Cyrillic block letters across the huge, red stage structure. This is a beautiful, beautiful set not afraid to look overwhelming.

--People dressed in Russian peasant garb settle into the stage prior to the show. Just as the voice of Rose Pickering finishes the opening welcome announcement over the sound system, the Rep includes a clever little visual joke that establishes the sharp contrast of the dramatically visual with the intensely comic. Very, very fun.

--The cast is an exceedingly well balanced group of people who have been working together for a very, very long time. Though everybody is essentially playing the type of role they’ve been playing for years, there’s something to be said for talented actors playing to their strengths. Joining the resident actors are a range of comic talents including Christopher Tarjan (due to appear in Bunk Bed Brothers with John McGivern not long after this show closes,) Drew Brhel and Steve Pickering. The most interesting bit of casting here had to be Rep Intern Xzavien Hollins as the Doctor. It’s comic relief and something more . . . and an amazingly cool opportunity for an intern. Hollins carries it well.

--Any given performance is going to change a bit based on audience reaction. The Saturday night performance was a bit odd in a couple of moments. Early on in the play, for instance, there’s a scene between Gerard Neugent and Torrey Hanson that establishes the characters of a depressed paper pusher for the government and his servant. The dialogue between the two of them is a comedy of contrast. Neugent is overly dramatic—distraught and suicidal. Hanson is gruff, casual and completely honest. There’s a humor in the brutal brevity of Hanson’s lines here. It’s a brilliantly written scene and Hanson and Nugent delivered it perfectly on Saturday night . . . a quick barrage of brutally short punch lines from Hanson alternating with comically exaggerated emotion from Nugent. And then there was one single line that Hanson delivered . . . not necessarily any more funny than the rest of the dialogue, but the audience erupted in an usually long laugh. Hanson and Neugent paused for a few beats longer than they would’ve probably expected to . . . for some reason the audience that night had all found that particular line delivered at that particular moment funnier than anything else in the dialogue.

--Much later-on in the play, there’s a moment where things begin crashing-in on the corrupt officials of the tiny Russian village . . . and it’s a very cathartic moment for anyone who was really upset about the rampant corruption of the previous presidential administration . . . and someone in the audience shouts something along the lines of, “You deserved it!” It didn’t slow down the play, but there’s definitely an energy there. It may have, in fact, had nothing to do with the politics in the play. It was in reaction to something Lee Ernst’s character said, maybe the audience member in question didn’t like Ernst or something about his character . . . in any case it was an interesting moment. Usually the most spontaneous disruption you get from the audience is a cell phone ringing . . . this gave a considerably different feel.

--Chicago actress Kathleen Romond puts in a delightfully subtle performance as the Mayor’s sullen, gothic punk intellectual daughter who can be seen silently wearing black, reading Pushkin and generally looking quite bored around the edges of the stage for much of the play. There's not much to it, but it’s a clever visual joke throughout the play that somehow never ceases to be funny. Romond is so earnest with her performance that the visual gag works really, really well along with much of the rest of the play.

The Milwaukee Rep’s production of The Government Inspector runs through October 4th at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theatre. A more concise, comprehensive review of the play runs in this week’s Shepherd-Express.

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