The Boston Globe
May 26, 1980

   Review / Stage
The Inspector General

By Kevin Kelly - Globe Staff

"THE INSPECTOR GENERAL" Play in two acts by Nikolai Gogol, directed by Peter Sellars, in a translation by Sam Guckenheimer and Sellars, scenery by Adrianne Loebl, costumes by Dunya Ramicova, lighting by Paul Gallo, in repertory at the American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, through Aug. 2

Peter Sellars' version of Gogol's "The Inspector General" may be put down for being an interruption rather than an interpretation.  But, first and foremost, it is absolutely brilliant.  No stock reverence here for an accepted classic; no reliance here on accepted theatrical practice; no old theories wheezed into momentary life.  Nothing like that at all.  Nothing except pure, blazing, lunatic brilliance cast from a surreal vision that sees more in Gogol's satire than all the standard versions focused as one.  As the fourth play to join the American Repertory Theater's inaugural season at the Loeb, "The Inspector General" is, by far, the boldest, the most inventive and the most fascinating.  (Which makes me apologize slightly to "A Midsummer Night's Dream").

What Sellars has done is not indescribable, but it is more than a little exotic.  And chaotic (but with the chaos in total control).  He has taken Gogol's satiric farce and given it an eerie comedic style that's vaudeville in principle, and very nearly Mozartean in reach.  And if that sounds like an odd combination, you don't know the half of it.  Gogol's corrupt Mayor, who runs a little backwater Russian village, has been imagined as a paranoiac, petty hack surrounded by the Four Stooges.  The Mayor's licentious wife and nubile daughter are Royal Doulton figurines out of "Cosi fan tutte."  The young man from St. Petersburg, who is easily mistaken for a government official come to inspect the village, has a face that says vanilla ice cream, and is so poor that he has holes in the toes and heels of both socks.  These Sellarian characters have been placed in a placeless world that has a glossy white backdrop, for shimmering but indeterminate reflection, and a stage mined with trap doors.  A prop may be oversized, like a mammoth pineapple, or proportionately scaled, like a gold love seat which, carrying the Mayor's wife and daughter, jerks across the stage on a track.  There is even a stand-up kitchen sink orchestra (playing Henri Kling's Kitchen Symphony, Opus 445) shuttling back and forth on another trolley.

There is, too, near the end, the steady raspberry-buzz of bazooka music.  There is also some Peter Pan flying (among a flock of papier mache magpies!) by the mistaken Inspector General.  And then there are two curtain calls. The second one in effect is an epilogue, with the mistaken identity revealed to the Mayor and his constituents, with humiliation and corruption frozen in place and held hypnotically, provocatively, until a very slow curtain.

There are moments (mostly at the beginning) when Sellars' approach seems selfserving, when the play seems incidental to the style (for some of the first act I thought I was watching "Waiting for Gogol").  But gradually the strangeness, rather the obliqueness, of the direction establishes a kind of aggressiveness that carries Gogol with it.  While there are isolated episodes that are nothing more than vaudeville bits (Bobchinsky, a flunkie, injures his nose in a folding bridge, don't ask me how, then wanders in front of the Loeb curtain for jokey repeats that might have troubled even Jimmy Durante), there is an almost mysterious sense of comedic accumulation to what Sellars does.  And he never repeats himself.  There are some stunning images in the second act, including the lighting of 50 plus candles at the lip of the stage (the traditional footlight path) with a trap door scene played in the glow.  There's a startling image of villagers pressed behind the fuzzily transparent, glossy white backdrop, tormented human beings framed under glass.  And through all this, the zany run-ons, the wilful interpolations, the pratfalls, the toy quintet, an orgy of overturned champagne buckets, a dead mouse, magpies on the wing, Gogol's sharp message about the essential corruptibility of men still gets stated.  We are all in Sellars' grasp, trapped in our venality, possibly to be forgiven (Sellars would say forgiven by laughing at ourselves).  The translation, by the way, is the work of Sellars and Sam Guckenheimer.  It's highly efficient, and anachronistically brazen enough to list Pushkin, Tolstoy, the National Enquirer and Joseph Pulitzer in one breath.

The performances are dazzling.  Max Wright plays the Mayor as though the grease on his palm shines directly in his heart.  His manic depressive highs and lows are very, very funny.  Mark-Linn Baker is pallidly perfect as the mistaken official.  Stephen Rowe and Phillip Cates, in black mourning clothes like all of the village hacks but with galoshes, make a wonderful team as Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky, respectively.  Barbara Orson, as the Mayor's wife, and Marianne Owen, as her daughter, share their scenes with bitchy splendor, and there are solid characterizations from Eric Elice, John McAndrew, Richard Grusin, Robertson Dean and Jeremy Geidt.  But the real star here is Peter Sellars, a Harvard undergrad who has directed some 40 student productions including a now-legendary dramatization of Wagner's "Ring."  The poetic justice is that the American Rep, which began as the Yale Rep and was dismissed from New Haven, came here and discovered him in Harvard Yard.