The Government Inspector

at the Blackstone Theatre

People say our actors can’t talk. It’s the well-known cliche. While the British have been busy turning out bell-toned Oliviers–Stanley Holloways, at the very least–we’re supposed to have bred a line of Great American Inarticulates, from Cooper to Brando to, I dunno, maybe Malkovich.

There’s compensation, of course, in the idea that our actors can move as well as anybody. Cooper had that walk, after all; young Brando had his slouchy violence; and Malkovich started out with Steppenwolf, which gave us the so-called Chicago style of rock ‘n’ roll acting.

But the fact is, American actors as a group don’t move any more powerfully or energetically, any more clearly or precisely or articulately than they’re supposed to talk. If you want a real gauge of our commitment to physical acting, look at rock ‘n’ roll Steppenwolf now: of the two productions they’re offering this summer, one sticks the cast members in chairs and leaves them there; the other’s most electric moment–Laurie Metcalf rubbing a book on her face to absorb the thoughts inside–is electric precisely because it speaks a physical language that doesn’t turn up anywhere else in the show.

As far as I can remember, the last important local work to really exploit the body’s communicative potential was Frank Galati’s She Always Said, Pablo, back in 1987. Since then there’s been an interesting little production of The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, but that’s pretty much it.

Our team’s physical illiteracy is especially obvious at times like this, when lots of European troupes are coming to town to perform–both under and outside the aegis of the International Theatre Festival. For a number of cultural reasons–including, crucially, the fact that they honor circus skills where we belittle them–European and European-inspired theater people routinely make heavy, and also feather-light, use of body language. These last few week’s and months I’ve seen Soviets do slapstick, Frenchmen play mime, Germans go operatic, and a mixed troupe of Canadians and Italians run through half of creation from the knees down. The results aren’t always fabulous, but the sheer breadth of vocabulary beats anything most natives are doing these days.

Hungary’s Katona Jozsef Theatre is a perfect example. Under the direction of Gabor Zsambeki, they’ve taken a hoary, incredibly verbose Russian classic and revived it–not only as a satire for the times, but as a minor masterpiece of physical theater.

The classic is The Government Inspector, Nikolai Gogol’s 150-year-old comedy about a bunch of small-town bureaucrats who are thrown into a panic when they hear that a commissar will be coming from Saint Petersburg to check out their hopelessly corrupt operation. Since the commissar’s said to be traveling incognito, the local boss and his henchmen eye every stranger as a potential spy. They finally light on a foolish young clerk who’s been running up bills around town.

Naturally, they’re wrong about the clerk, but he doesn’t tell them so. He takes their food, their money, and their women instead–building a substantial fortune for himself before beating it out of town.

Director Zsambeki updates the setting to a sort of generically sordid present–suggesting a dissident, postcommunist critique. He introduces an element of brutality–to give that critique some serious weight. But his real triumph here doesn’t lie in coded references to current political struggles; to the contrary, it lies in the way he and his actors use their physical art to evoke more timeless and fundamental struggles. Between them, Peter Blasko as the town boss and Janos Ban as the clerk turn The Government Inspector into a great ballet of cynicism. Here’s the boss performing his Dance of Voracious Greed. Here’s the clerk performing his little Polka of Napoleonic Egotism. Here are the two of them performing their Pas de Deux in Honor of Fawning and Humiliation.

And so on. It’s gorgeous, hilarious, and utterly devastating. Blasko, Ban, and the rest of the ensemble demonstrate a clownish poise that not only enlivens Gogol’s satire but makes it true again. Makes it speak. I wish more American actors were interested in achieving that kind of poise for themselves.