Nikolai Gogol’s satirical play “The Government Inspector” is being showcased at Pomona College’s Seaver Theatre from Nov. 15-18.
Directed by Giovanni Ortega, Pomona assistant professor of theater and dance, the play focuses on the corrupt government of a small Russian town. The characters quickly become rattled by news of an incognito government inspector’s arrival, and a hilarious show — full of shenanigans, deceptions, and briberies — begins.
The play opens with a short mime sequence featuring the town’s elite, or “the crew,” as Ortega calls it. The actors’ deliberate physicality in the scene serves as an entertaining precursor of the humor to follow. The elite consists of a mayor (Jon Wilson PO ’19), judge (Claire Pukszta SC ’19), school principal (Shanawar Zahoor PZ ’21), and hospital director (Mark Diaz PO ’22).
Along with the country squires (Roei Cohen PO ’21 and Owen Halstad PO ’21) and the outer circle of the crew, the characters brainstorm ideas on how to navigate the arrival of civil servant Ivan Aleksandrovich Khlestakov (Ben Hogoboom PO ’19) after receiving a letter about the inspector’s arrival from the postmistress (Shringi Diva Vikram SC ’20).
Due to a case of mistaken identity, the crew believes Khlestakov to be the government inspector, and they scurry off trying to bribe his good favor. In actuality, Khlestakov is merely a young civil servant, who has trouble paying his bills, and constantly needs his servant Osip (Tomás Negritto PZ ’19) to bring him back to reality.
Khlestakov, for his part, quickly catches on to the crew’s mistake and continually asks for “loans” as he flirts with the mayor’s wife (Aliyah Muhammad PO ’19) and daughter (Maya Barbon PZ ’21). With Osip at his side, Khlestakov embraces the unexpected hospitality. In one particular scene, he marvels at the offer of steak and potatoes.
It is clear from the beginning of the production that no character is inherently good.
“Even the characters that function as protagonists aren’t positive images of positive influences,” Wilson said. “But each character has redeemable qualities that are so identifiable to the audience, and that’s kind of where the magic lies.”
Indeed, the complex nature of the characters is exactly what hooks the audience. When Khlestakov bursts into singing a love song (“Marya, have you met Marya?”) to win the daughter’s hand, viewers can only laugh and cheer at his rockstar moves.
The show may depict a corrupt government, but that doesn’t stop anyone from thoroughly enjoying the maid’s (Katherine Silbereisen PZ ’20) entertaining pillow talk. The script is littered with sexual jokes and innuendos, and it only adds to its humor.
If there is an award for scene stealers, it must go to the country squires. Cohen and Halstad act like a set of twins, and their characters’ love for each other is so endearing that it elicited a cry of “goals!” from a fellow audience member. Their speech was so well rehearsed that it was delivered perfectly in either canon or unison (“Please forgive us for our existence!”), and in moments of frustration and agony, the two cradled each other like they were each other’s true soulmates.
The chemistry between the country squires, as well as between other characters of the play, was palpable.
“It starts at the holistic level of everybody having this chemistry and everybody being in the room present and engaged, and trying and willing to make each other laugh,” Wilson said.
The production’s attention to detail was clear. From stage design elements like a push-out bed to theatrical techniques like the actors’ deliberate fluctuations in tone, every single aspect only added to the audience’s enjoyment of the production. When the truth is finally revealed — watch it for yourself — the cast members’ and crews’ comical building of suspense proves successful and rewarding.
On his goals for the show, Wilson said, “I want the audience to pretty much be laughing non-stop, which is a greedy goal.”
While it is indeed a lofty one, he carried this mindset when acting because he believed that laughter creates a form of camaraderie within the audience.
“We’re not just creating a community onstage to present to the audience,” Wilson said. “We’re bringing the audience into our community and creating bonds between them.”
Ortega hopes the show will encourage self-reflection.
“The whole job of theatre for me is putting a mirror to society and showing the reflection of who we are as human beings,” he said.
Wilson added, “If a traditional way of presenting theatre is to ‘hold the mirror up’ to nature, then Gogol’s goal is to hold up a distorted mirror to the audience, so that they see that that’s much closer to reality than the perfect pictures that we paint for ourselves.”
The characters certainly embody qualities that allow us to reflect on the nuances in personality and action. Though the jokes and comedy are delightful, the play also sheds light on politics and humanity.
“The Government Inspector” is a must-see. Come for the laughter, the corruption, and the reflection on society, but stay for the mayor’s beard, the postmistress’ letters, and the bear rug that happens to hide all the mayor’s bribe money.