There's a quotation by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in an anthology called Dumbest Things Ever Said: "There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know."
The dumbest part of this quotation is calling it dumb. That label is intended to mock Rumsfeld for the double-speak of covert intelligence, yet despite an antipathy to the policies Rumsfeld supported, I can't help but admire the existential wisdom in his remarks.
The ancient Greek tragedies of Sophocles and Aeschylus are mostly propelled by characters who stumble around not knowing what they don't know. From the Roman comedies of Plautus to French farces to contemporary American politicians, you'll find arrogant dolts racing around the world, walking into closets by accident, jumping out of the window as some husband opens the bedroom door and saying any number of idiotic, needlessly incendiary things, all the while not knowing what they don't know. This is the timeless grist of comedy and tragedy as we know it.
Enter Russian novelist-playwright Nikolai Gogol and his 1842 comedy The Government Inspector (which also goes by the title The Inspector General). The farce concerns the outrageously corrupt bureaucrats of a provincial town who, when warned that a government inspector is arriving incognito as part of an anti-corruption campaign, try to suss out who the guy is and where he might be staying. Upon finding him, they flatter, cajole and bribe him with smug satisfaction that costs them a fortune, an investment in protecting their positions and their way of doing business. Unfortunately for them, they've identified the wrong guy.
Furious Theatre Company and Theatre @ Boston Court have teamed up to co-produce Oded Gross' world-premiere adaptation, which upends and inverts huge swaths of Gogol's play while miraculously ensnaring its essence. The result is a political parable and ribald cartoon groomed for this election cycle, and a production, staged by Stefan Novinski, that sustains a gentle, physically colorful and flippant farce with almost unwavering comic expertise by the ensemble.
Adam Haas Hunter's imposter-inspector, Khlestakov, is about as perfect a comic rogue as you're likely to find. His wildly expressive face, pristine timing, spontaneous bursts of indignant rage, self-importance and bloated, groundless entitlement meld into a presence that continually rides a line between being broadly funny and subtly unnerving. As his sidekick servant, Osif, Eileen T'Kaye is a model of understatement, frequently expressing through her face and body her withering anguish at being employed by such a cad.
Competing for Khlestakov's attentions are the wife (Shannon Holt in a grotesquely funny cameo) of the mayor (John Billingsley) and her stepdaughter, Marya (Megan Goodchild), who is locked into playing out fairy-tale fantasies. Marya crosses the stage with a massive volume of Grimm's Fairy Tales as part of her headstrong pursuit of Prince Charming. This is among the impositions of Gross' adaptation that leads to the political theme: The house is on fire — do something real! Paralysis and distraction are no longer viable. Well, Brecht said the same thing in the 1930s, for what that was worth. The house was on fire then, too, he said. And it was, and it still is.
Little danger of stridency on this stage, however. Gross' adaptation comes peppered with far too many jokes for that. At one point, when it's clear Marya's behavior is presenting a problem for her family, somebody filches the song title from The Sound of Music, asking, "How do you solve a problem like Marya," earning a well-deserved volley of hisses from the audience. There are irrepressibly clever jokes about the communications director Ivan (Joe Fria) getting lost in digressions, and about the health minister (Alan Brooks) being overweight and obsessed with sweets, for which he's employed a German doctor (Jacob Sidney) whom nobody understands. The local judge (Dana Kelly Jr.) admits to sending innocent children into the privately run juvenile detention center. "What could I do?" he pleads with earnest conviction. "[The lobbyists] were paying me!"
A new subplot concerns organizing a protest movement against the corrupt government officials. "What we need is a slogan!" somebody says, stepping on another character's toe. "Ow," he responds. "Don't tread on me!" "OK, OK, I'm sorry," replies the first, as this confederacy of dunces walks off the stage.
Tina Haatainen-Jones' beautifully lurid costumes have primary colors blazing from the stage, most in 19th-century suits and such, but with Khlestakov singularly and wittily in Russian peasant attire.
The production comes punctuated with Gross' original songs, one containing the sneering anthem, "Life isn't fair." Right. And what do we do about that? A stage production as delightful as this is one blistering response.
On the first weekend of REDCAT's New Original Works Festival, Poor Dog Group presented a hypnotic interpretive dance, The Murder Ballad, performed by Jessica Emmanuel and Jesse Saler, directed by Jesse Bonnell. Barefoot and on a glaringly white stage, Emmanuel, lithe and statuesque, wore a kind of halter top, cream with pale blue stripes — hints of jail attire — as she clutched a bottle of wine. More bottles lined the back of the stage.
The dance was accompanied by Jelly Roll Morton's ballad about a woman who murders the lover of her "man" and is sent to hard labor in Baton Rouge for her trouble, realizing her man has found a new "bitch" while she's behind bars being seduced by another woman. It's an obscenity-laced saga of regret and self-realization, interpreted physically by Emmanuel, who had the lion's share of stage time, with spasmic grace. As her occasional partner, Saler was no less manic, extending his tongue down his face while glaring at the audience, like a viper.
The performance saga was as dark and horrific as The Government Inspector is bright and horrific — and no less beautiful, both about follies and crimes committed because of "things we don't know we don't know."
THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR | Adapted by Oded Gross from the play by Nikolai Gogol | Presented by Furious Theatre Company and Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena | Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Aug. 26 | (626) 683-6883 | bostoncourt.com
NEW ORIGINAL WORKS FESTIVAL | Presented by REDCAT, 631 W. Second St., dwntwn. | Thurs.-Sat., 8:30 p.m.; through Aug. 11 | (213) 237-2800 | redcat.org