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Stealing the show

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They knew — they simply had to know — that the presidential election would go down like this. There’s no other way to explain Walk & Squawk Performance Project’s uncanny timing in resurrecting Nikolai Gogol’s 19th century satire of political corruption The Government Inspector. The present-day debacle of the American electoral system is slightly suggestive of a corrupt Russian dictatorship, and Florida may as well be the bent provincial town in which this story of scheming takes place. Maybe it wasn’t so difficult for theater folk to foresee that our nation would fudge up a fundamental constitutional process. It’s possible that our cast of political candidates was enough of a joke to remind them of the ageless adage: Life really does imitate art.

The play’s story involves a band of ludicrous characters: a mayor, a charities warden, a judge, a police chief, a school superintendent, a postmaster and two local landowners who are preparing for a visit from an anonymous federal inspector. Attempting to conceal the corrupt political ethics that govern the small town, the group resolves to bribe the arriving inspector. But when they mistake a gambling wanderer for the important out-of-town clerk, the joke is on the ignorant officials.

We can’t give Walk & Squawk all the credit here. Even in translation from the 1830s, the play’s dialogue is a triumph of bold, smart jabs — it was, in fact, one punch after another against the preposterous Russian regime of the mid-19th century.

Dramatic effects help this performance become more than just a coincidental mockery of political powers-that-be. Walk & Squawk’s version of The Government Inspector is an amusing show of cartoonish sound effects, animated costuming and ominous lighting which set the stage for flawless execution — one that’s equal parts farce and satire. The actors blend together dynamically, making this adaptation a tribute to Gogol’s comedic roast of rebellious literature.

A zany cowbell, a dopey glockenspiel … these and more percussion effects prod the story to life. The colorful score is by Frank Pahl, a Detroit musical talent who obviously understands that sound is not just noise — it’s background and rhythmic timing (or the clumsy lack of it) which provides momentum for the plot. And it’s also a riotously funny character prop. In the case of the blue-nosed St. Petersburg clerk — a Pee-Wee Herman-Dana Carvey hybrid played by actor Jeffrey Steiger — the continuous whipping buzz of a prop cane adds humorous emphasis during moments of excitement, astonishment or fear. It also adds the perfect element of whimsical flamboyance to the character.

Gogol made no attempts to conceal his political rebellion in this script. But for this show, the costume design by Alison Lewis also hints at a visual metaphorical language. The postmaster wears padding in his chest and rear, and is shaped like a bird. Feathers poke out from beneath the judge’s black cloak. And a servant walks around like a chicken with his head cut off — trotting to and fro with a wobbly head — while wearing an amusing wig that looks like stout feathers atop an empty brain. Our eyes alone tell us that these officials are foul, immoral people — simply because they’re fowl.

Even if blatant mockery is the comedic tone in The Government Inspector, was this originally reason enough for the Russian government to feel so threatened by it? Did it justify the punishment that Gogol received, a 12-year exile from his country?

In Walk & Squawk’s performance, the lighting in the opening and closing scenes is haunting and somber, simulating the tone which must have really frightened the old-time authorities. An eerie blue-green light shadows the stage and transforms it into a dreamlike world of unconscious thought. In one sequence, the actors slowly shed their costumes beneath this haunting hue to reveal the truth of the plot: that the cast of characters symbolically represents mid-19th century Russian society. These poignantly lit moments blur the line between grave reality and surrealistic fantasy. And were it not for the lighting — designed by Tyler Micoleau — we might not have realized the threat that Gogol posed for the originally intended audience.

The Walk & Squawk cast does an incredible job for this performance, but additional dramatic effects make the project a standout show. And this time, the prophetic story has risen to meet the high quality of its adaptation. Rebecca Mazzei is the Metro Times listings editor. E-mail her at rmazzei@metrotimes.com

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