Gogol's Grotesque Mirror

The Inspector General Directed by Peter Sellars '80 At the Loeb, in repertory through July 12

THE CHARACTERS in this Inspector General huddle together onstage, shoulders hunched and arms poised as if to ward off some painful blow that could fall anytime, anywhere. Director Peter Sellars deploys Gogol's gallery of human grotesques under black bumbershoots--protection not from rain but from the details of daily life that intrude on their passivity. They seem to be fighting a desperately comical rearguard action against nasty, brutish human nature, and losing

Gogol had no particular town, government or country in mind when he concocted his play; his target was the pathetic mendacity of everyone, everywhere. The rural officials who mistake a visiting landowner's son for an inspector general from Petersburg show off every human failing, but in shriveled, impoverished versions. They cower from their own defects like they cower from the rest of the world. Their sins, they protest, are "sinlets."

Max Wright's mercurial Mayor leads the American Rep actors in their flight from traditional-conversational exchange, alternating with precise control between an entirely non-verbal, vacuous moan and a galloping torrent of words tripping over each other in their eagerness to overwhelm the listener. He shouts "I'm not guilty" like an incantation to dispel the ills the world flings at him; his colleagues ponder their response to the supposed inspector-general's arrival with the cacophonous murmur of an elderly Orthodox Jewish congregation praying at different speeds. Richard Grusin's nasal, rotund Director of Welfare Institutions and Eric Elice's contortionist Superintendent of Schools, especially, transform this group into a human array of deformity who physically mirror their own insides.

Into this festering, still pool of corruption drops the inert stone of Khlestakov, the young visitor, sending violent waves through everyone else's life but remaining happily, passively at rest himself. Mark Linn-Baker seems deliberately to make no more and no less of this character than Gogol did--which is to say, nothing, a personality-less cipher whose every action either fulfills the most hollow expectations of societal conduct or moves inertially towards a well-fed rest. Unable to choose, he mechanically makes love to both the mayor's wife and daughter--two primped peacocks immobile on a divan--until, deciding in a characteristically inverted way that the daughter is "very un-ugly," he asks for her hand. His ecstatic dream of wolfing down a juicy salt-cod hangs suspended over his scenes in the form of a giant fish impaled on a fork; the puzzling monster pineapple that wanders back and forth upstage presumably reminds the audience mutely of Khlestakov's vegetative nature.

SELLARS, WHOSE past work at Harvard has shown great imagination in conception and staging but often left actors stranded without a secure place in the theater, seems to have thrived working with the ART's professionals. Their self-assured individuality complements the impersonal quality this Inspector General shares with much of Sellars' work to give it unity and plenitude of intelligible detail.

Sellars' staging takes full advantage of the Loeb's resources without resorting to the exhibitionist audacity of his King Lear last winter. The town officials enter the stage almost exclusively via trapdoors, and leave the same way, jumping and holding their noses as if plunging into a Gehennan sewer. In a lengthy scene of bribetaking, they materialize one at a time before Khlestakov from pits in the candle-lit stage like, apparitions from his own unconscious.

A critic ought not reveal the various surprises in Sellars' staging of Gogol's already apocalyptic ending, but the virtues and problems of the new translation by Sellars and Sam Guckenheimer can be addressed without giving anything away. The literal rendition into English of Gogol's gnarled, misshapen and often deliberately ungrammatical Russian has both rewards and dangers. Most of the Russian adages come across powerfully--as when the distraught mayor cries, "I have outlived my own mind!"--but occasionally lines fail to connect ("Both have fallen finger-first in heaven"). Gogol's sense of the absurd surfaces frequently and effectively in this translation, too--as in Khlestakov's repeated avowal that various important officials are "on a friendly foot with me." But the constant jumbling and inversion of sentence order sometimes gives the impression that the translation is simply clumsy. Intentionally or not, many characters sound like foreign tourists struggling with an English phrase-book.

Gogol's farcical humor shows itself in this production nowhere better than in Steven Drury's music. In the first half of the play, the town officials perform a "Kitchen Symphony" on pots, frying pans, and water-coolers; after the intermission, they bring up the curtain with a solemn, processional concerto grosso for kazoo. Music seems somehow a more congenial way for these characters to communicate the timid ridiculousness of their lives than words.

MOST OF SELLARS' Inspector General understandingly subordinates the moralizing inherent in Gogol's near religious allegory to its boundless wealth of burlesque, making the play a perfect entertainment above all else. Neither Sellars nor the ART actors are shy of sight-gags; in just one extraordinarily droll mime sequence, Stephen Rowe's embarassed Bobchinsky, stranded in front of the curtain with a broken nose, loses his only companion on the stage--a cubic wooden platform that descends as he leans on it--and shuffles nervously, disconsolately offstage.

Only once does the comic energy flag and seriousness take over: a series of afflicted towns-people visits Khlestakov, and on a dimly lit stage two women plead for his assistance in tedious, unexpectedly serious tones. It seems like a screwed-up bit of pacing. But then a macabre, unforgettable vision appears: a group of eerie, frazzled black scarecrows in a Brownian movement behind the transparent plastic sheet that forms the stage's rear boundary, staring at Khlestakov like a second, ghostly audience. In his impenetrable complacency, he can ignore them with a wave of his hand. But if the audience on the other side is to respect itself any more than it respects him, it's forced to contemplate its own visate in this, Gogol's mirror.