It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad mir that director Michael Kahn conjures in his Russian-screwball treatment of Nikolai Gogol’s “The Government Inspector.” Calling to disorder a gaggle of Shakespeare Theatre Company comic regulars — Nancy Robinette, Floyd King, David Sabin, Rick Foucheux, Sarah Marshall, Derek Smith, Lawrence Redmond, Tom Story — Kahn applies a looney-tunes veneer to this 19th-century Slavic satire, the tale of a provincial backwater so corrupt even the pets should have their paws out.
The resulting shenanigans are often highly amusing, even if, by the stringent standards of the company’s other forays into classical comedy, “The Government Inspector” resides on a rung of uproariousness just below such primo recent entertainments as “The Liar,” “The Heir Apparent” and “The Servant of Two Masters.” As in those offerings, the first two adapted by David Ives, the company is using a version by a modern playwright — in this case, the erudite Jeffrey Hatcher — that seeks to relieve an old work of some of its turgid excess.
Hatcher, whose absorbing, 17th-century-set “Compleat Female Stage Beauty” became the 2004 movie “Stage Beauty” with Claire Danes and Billy Crudup, is an elegant writer but not quite as deft as Ives at the interweaving of modern conceits. So some of his twee-ness lands with a thud, as, for instance, when the town’s incompetent principal (an unflappable Craig Wallace) makes a series of cracks about how hard it is to fire teachers.
At other times, however, the ripostes crisply hit their marks. “Men don’t like a woman with a tongue like yours,” says the giddily indignant Robinette as Anna, the battle-ax wife of the mayor. “Oh really?” sneers Claire Brownell as daughter Marya. “Ask around.”
Enough of these chuckles do arise to sustain the evening’s central joke, the town fathers’ belief that a skirt-chasing nobody (Smith) is in actuality an inspector from St. Petersburg come incognito to expose the town’s rampant dishonesty. So it’s safe to say you will find “The Government Inspector” to be a relaxing sit. The production just wants to have fun. And in a contentious season of pronouncements about how much 47 percent of this nation pays to the government, it can be refreshing to experience something completely untaxing.
Securing the services of costume designer Murell Horton was certainly the right move, too, for the graft-meisters of “The Government Inspector” like showing off the fruits of their labor-free labors. Horton decks out characters in what might be called Seuss couture: Fat-suited lookalikes Bobchinsky (Hugh Nees) and Dobchinsky (Harry A. Winter) appear as if each could perch elephantine on a low branch and hatch an egg. Some outfits are topped off impishly with hairdos out of Whoville, and other getups venture farther afield for inspiration. Foucheux’s sleaze-bucket of a mayor, in wild mutton chops and overdone regalia, is a Nutcracker Prince gone to serious seed. And Robinette is festooned hilariously by Horton in yards of what seem to be discarded duvets from the bedrooms of Versailles.
Kahn’s comic inventions are classic in both Shakespearean and vaudevillian terms, and so he gets mileage from his players with entrances that remind you of those traditions. In a trio of roles, Marshall is employed to splendid effect, especially in the moment when the door flings open in the shabby inn where Smith’s “inspector,” Ivan Hlestakov, is holed up, and the actress materializes as an innkeeper of minimalist bearing. (As she shuffles around in big, pointy slippers, your thoughts go to a younger Betty White, in one “Carol Burnett” sketch or another.)
Liam Craig, a member of the zany tribe that made “Servant of Two Masters” such a delight, here provides top-flight service as the cynical steward to Smith’s Ivan; Brownell, wearing smoky eye makeup and “Addams Family” black, applies a cheekily humorous hangdog insouciance to Marya, and King, wearing what seem to be Russian postal pajamas, expertly handles the running joke of a mailman who reads every letter before delivery.
The heaviest task falls to Smith, who manages to keep it appealingly light. His refined comic countenance proves slightly more adaptable to Ivan than it did to his Benedick, in last season’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” As encapsulated in the moments when he happens to glance into a mirror to fuss with his flyaway locks, the effeteness works well for a fool required to believe it’s his charisma that prompts the town’s over-generous welcome.
The possibility exists that the comic timing might have been off a bit on the evening I attended; curtain time was delayed about half an hour because the production’s turntable for James Noone’s set of nicely appointed Russian interiors was not working properly. Things got under way after a decision was made to have backstage crew members turn the set themselves. And that had an unexpected payoff: The sight of workers in shadow, using muscle to push the revolving set into place, did give a whiff of feudal Russia. All that was missing was “The Song of the Volga Boatmen.”
adapted from Nikolai Gogol’s play by Jeffrey Hatcher. Directed by Michael Kahn. Sets, James Noone; costumes, Murell Horton; lighting, Philip S. Rosenberg; composer, Adam Wernick; sound, Veronika Vorel; voice and text, Ellen O’Brien; wigs, Anne Nesmith. With Travis Blumer. About two hours. Through Oct. 28 at Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.