Two local theater productions have a lot to admire about them.
And, some elements to not admire so much…
Review: The Government Inspector by Nikolai Gogol and adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher. Produced by Seattle Shakespeare Company. Directed by Allison Narver. Choreographed by Crystal Dawn Munkers. Set Design by Julia Welch. Costume Design by Pete Rush. Lighting Design by Andrew D. Smith. Sound Design by Evan Mosher and Robertson Witmer. Properties Design by Cedric Wright. With Shanna Allman, Rob Burgess, Susanna Burney, BRACE EVANS, Douglas Fries, Jonelle Jordan, Kevin Kelly, Imogen Love, Arjun Pande, Brandon J. Simmons, Sara Waisanen, and R. Hamilton Wright. Now through November 19, 2017 at Center House Theater/Seattle Center.
We’ll start with the one that has a great script (one that’s been around for 170 + years) and status as a classic in the comedy pantheon. It’s Seattle Shakes’ first foray into Russian theater with Nikolai Gogol’s comedy classic THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR (sometimes known as “The Inspector General” thanks to the 1949 Danny Kaye starring film version). This version has been adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher but it’s the same beloved plot about a corrupt, backwater provincial town that panics when they hear that a government inspector has been sent from the capital to check up on them. Since everyone in town, from the blustering, conniving mayor to the school headmaster to the doctors in charge of the hospital to the judge to the postman who opens all the mail, is graft ridden, greedy and venial, they all have something to worry about.
The town leaders quickly surmise that the only newcomer in town, Khlestakov who has been staying at the local inn for the last week with his servant, Osip must be the inspector, so they quickly lavish him with attention, praise and large gifts of cash. This delights Khlestakov since in reality he is a very lowly government bureaucrat with no power or authority and was down to his last kopeck and contemplating suicide before the town took him up as their hero. But, Khlestakov also gets greedy as he not only pursues graft but both the Mayor’s voluptuous sneaky wife and the Mayor’s not exactly pure of heart daughter. Eventually the town discovers the deception but they also discover the identity of the REAL government inspector.
Gogol’s black comedy still holds up after all these years…its dark wit and biting satire seem familiar to anyone seeing parallels with the current political climate. Who doesn’t enjoy the machinations of the corrupt being exposed with all the usual trappings of slamming doors, mistaken identities and mendacious chicanery? It’s a fun farce but as Gogol intended, it’s also a pointed satire. There IS meaning and depth to the silliness.
Well…..there should be. And, that’s the chief drawback to Seattle Shakes’ production as directed by Allison Narver. She has meticulously staged and choreographed her actors (with the help of choreographer Crystal Dawn Munkers) with great flair and vitality; there’s a lot of terrific movement here involving the actors and set pieces. It’s lovely to look at with a lot of terrific visuals and cheeky flair.
But, Ms Narver seems bent on stressing the comedy at the expense of the darker meaning embedded within the humor. This production is played as broad commedia with lots and lots of big, loud gags and not much subtlety. The satire has been muted in order to feature far too many loud performances that seem forced. The actors are trying so hard to BE funny that they’re killing some of the jokes. There’s not much nuance here just non-stop noisy buffoonery which is too bad because this show is blessed with a great script and talented actors like Rob Burgess as the bumbling mayor (funny but some of his lines are delivered so fast they’re unintelligible) and R. Hamilton Wright as the perceived “inspector” who is also quite funny but also just a bit miscast here.
The support is quite good with Shanna Allman as the promiscuous daughter, Sara Waisanen as the lusty wife, Imogen Love as several characters including a pompous judge and a lascivious servant all standing out. Brandon J. Simmons was drily funny as the school principal and his subtle underplaying was actually appropriate for the material. Jonelle Jordan also stood out in dual roles, both male, as the manservant Osip and the very nosy postmaster.
The show is handsomely designed with mobile scenic elements designed by Julia Welch that become part of the choreography and Pete Rush’s very theatrical and somewhat abstract costumes that cleverly indicate each character’s role in the society that the play takes place in.
Seattle Shakespeare Company’s The Government Inspector has much to recommend: the script itself, design elements, lovely staging and some funny performances. But, the lack of depth to the piece and the overly loud and bombastic style of the comedy is detrimental to Gogol’s intent. You will laugh but at times it feels forced and fake.
Review: The Nance by Douglas Carter Beane. Produced by ArtsWest Playhouse. Directed by Mathew Wright. Choreography by Shadou Mintrone. Music Direction by John Lehrack. Scenic Design by Lex Marcos, Costume Design by Kelsey Rogers. Lighting Design by Tristan Roberson. Sound Design by Haley Parcher. Properties Design by Andrea Spraycar. With Richard Gray, Jeff Steitzer, Drew Highands, Ann Cornelius, Jasmine Jean Sim, Diana Cameron McQueen. Now through November 19, 2017 at ArtsWest Playhouse.
Also feeling fake is THE NANCE, Douglas Carter Beane’s 2013 play about the world of burlesque in New York City circa 1937. It focuses on Chauncey Miles, a middle aged burlesque comedian who specializes in playing the “nance”, a term for a stock effeminate male character in comedy/theater/film of the period who used naughty double entendres and effeminate mannerisms to portray stereotypical queer characters but also get by strict indeceny laws that prohibited lewd portrayals on stage.
Few “nances” in burlesque became famous names though Bert Lahr got started in burlesque and vaudeville and used nance shtick in many of his performances (including his Cowardly Lion in MGM’s 1939 The Wizard of Oz). Lahr, like most of the nances in burlesque, was straight but the gimmick of Beane’s play is that Chauncey is actually a closeted gay man playing queer on stage while masking his real sexuality to protect himself from the prejudices of the time.
The Nance has a fascinating subject matter that hits all my “buttons of interest”….history, queer history, theater history, show business history and the Depression era are all subjects of huge appeal to me. Douglas Carter Beane seems to have done a great job in researching this time frame but…the main problem with The Nance is that it never really FEELS like 1937 within the confines of the story. The characters and how they interact with each other seem very, very contemporary. The dialogue seems more 2013 than 1937 and the characters are equally anachronistic. The characters consist of Chauncey, Efram the burlesque show owner who also performs (which is unlikely in itself), Chauncey’s sexy young boyfriend Ned, and three female burlesque performers who all have “hearts of gold” and love them gays!
The best part of The Nance is the Chauncey character and it’s obvious that Beane tailored the role to fit the talents of its original star, Nathan Lane. Chauncey is heavily flawed…a gay man who is a proud Republican and very bigoted towards other social groups. He’s passionate and loves Ned but rejects him not wanting to be “tied down” to a heteronormative lifestyle…which also feels very 2013. The relationship between Ned is nicely played but it also feels too contemporary. And, the character arcs of the supporting players are rather feeble….the bigoted “fag hating” Efram really does love Chauncey and the burlesque gals are all proud allies and apparently started PFLAG all by themselves!
So, the basic story/premise of The Nance is clunky and flawed (the authorities clamp down on burlesque houses and homosexual portrayals on stage in particular) and Chauncey has career woes AND relationship woes with his hot young boyfriend. It all feels a tad soapy. Fortunately, it’s saved by having a great character at the center of the story and a superb actor in that role and Richard Gray, best known to Seattle audiences for his many many lead roles in local musical productions (including another Nathan Lane role in The Producers a few years back) is the chief reason to see The Nance. Mr. Gray does a brilliant job of playing the complexities of Chauncey, both the good and the ugly, and gives a highly evolved and emotionally compelling performance. It’s a bravura performance and well worth seeing.
I think the rest of the cast is strong too, especially Drew Highlands as Ned, the boyfriend. The other actors are also fine, but their roles are so cardboard that it’s hard for them to make them very real.
The Broadway production of The Nance won a Tony for its great revolving set that switches between onstage scenes and backstage scenes at the burlesque house, and scenes at Chauncey’s apartment and a local automat. Unfortunately, ArtsWest isn’t equipped with a large playing space or a budget for a revolve so we have to deal with a lot of scene changing which does slow down the momentum of the story. This production is handsomely designed with an attractive set and period costumes (by Kelsey Rogers) but the demands of the script might be more than a smaller theater can logistically handle.
I’m happy to recommend The Nance to people interested in the subject matter as well as for Mr. Gray’s strong performance of the fascinating main character. But, Mr. Beane’s awkward script and overly modern approach to the material is problematic.