99% Farce, 1% Satire

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What’s the difference between farce and satire?

That’s the question swirling through my head watching a new adaptation of “The Government Inspector” at Boston Court.  The world premiere by playwright Oded Gross is a co-production between the Theater @ Boston Court and the Furious Theatre Company.

It’s based on the Russian satirical classic by Nikolai Gogol and it’s an archetype of mistaken identity and government corruption.  In the opening scene we meet a cabal of corrupt officials in a provincial Russian town.  The mayor is terrified: there’s gossip that an incognito Inspector General from St. Petersburg is coming to their small hamlet to root out their misdeeds.  Word comes to them that a guest at the inn is racking up charges and refuses to pay his bill.  Comically, the mayor concludes “There are only two types of people that don’t pay their bill. Those that can’t. . . .And those that don’t need to.”  They falsely decide this guest is surely the inspector and, as they say - hilarity ensues.

Playwright Oded Gross has taken Gogol’s plot and turned it into something of a slavic sitcom.  The political bufoonery is still there but he’s added a fairytale subplot and wrapped it all in a couple of dance numbers.  

Mr. Gross has taken the mayor’s daughter and turned her into an aspiring Cinderella complete with princess dress.  She’s longing for . . . you guessed it “her prince charming” and, like the others, deludes herself that seducing this visitor from St. Petersburg is her ticket to ‘happily ever after’.

This adaptation of “The Government Inspector” is well-acted, crisply directed  and clever.  As a farce - it’s fun.  But what’s missing is the satirical bite of the original.  The production lacks a moral anchor against which to push because you can’t really have comedy without a little tragedy.  

In the original, that gravitas is provided by the oppressed villagers who arrive in act two to plead for the imprisonment of the mayor and his cronies.  In Mr. Gross’ version, they hint at that.  At the top of act two, they appear ushankas, bubushkas and all to reprise the opening song “Life’s not fair, that’s just the fact of it.”  

On the page, their song provides a witty juxtaposition to the rationalized greed we hear in act one.  The trouble is Mr. Gross and director Stefan Novinski play the song, and the villagers, for laughs rather than ominous undertone.  

In a moment when much of the world is grappling with the relationship of the 1% to the 99%, Gogol’s play could have been more than just a funny trifle.  Even playwright Gross seems to recognize this.  As the villagers surround the mayor’s mansion at the end of the play, one of the politicos declares:

“My God, it’s a mob!  There must be a thousand people out there. That’s like 99 percent of the town.”

The line gets a laugh of clever recognition . . . but it doesn’t sting in quite the way satire should.

“The Inspector General” plays at the Boston Court Theater in Pasadena through August 26th.

For info on the show and to join the conversation, check out: kcrw.com/theater.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.