by Colin Heath
Studio 58, Langara College
November 18-December 5

In Nikolai Gogol’s classic 19th century satire, The Inspector General, the corrupt mayor and other self-important dignitaries of a provincial Russian town make fools of themselves in their attempts to impress a visiting official from Moscow who turns out to be, in fact, an impostor. The nature of Gogol’s play has long made it a favorite for adaptation to local situations. In the 1980s, for instance, Michel Tremblay set it in Duplessis-era Quebec. Colin Heath has transported his version to small town BC, playing good-naturedly on the notoriety of our Governor General and her husband, and creating a very funny if dangerously tempting vehicle for a talented class of Langara College actors.

Under false pretences the sleepy town of Idle Arm has received a Canada Council grant to present an Arts Festival, and they’ve drunk it all away. When the mayor and council hear that Adrienne Clarkson and John Ralston Saul will be making a surprise visit they decide to do all they can to impress the Queen’s representative and her sophisticated consort, including staging their festival for the duo, showing them the can-do talent and enterprise of heartland BC. Trouble is, the GG and spouse are actually an illegal Chinese immigrant and the crook who’s smuggled her into Canada, both on the run from the law. When the two realize who the rubes think they are, they play along with easy comic success—even though her would-be Excellency can speak only Chinese.

Along with the clever concept, some effective plot twists and great comic dialogue, Heath has given his student actors juicily eccentric characters to play, including a group of hippies who play a symphony of found instruments, the mayor’s elderly deaf mother, a skeptical blue-collar populist (“Why are they comin’ here instead of Oka-friggin-agan Lake?”), and a lesbian couple whose dance routine inside a single pair of pants is a highlight of the show. (So is, among Christine Hackman’s hilarious costumes—oh god, I hope I’m right about this—the bra-less prosthetic breasts that hang down to their waists under their t-shirts). There’s a somewhat uninteresting sexual subplot that develops between the mayor and the pseudo-Saul (Nathan Zeitner, in the show’s most successfully grounded performance), but mostly Heath (who also directs) lets the characters’ wackiness take centre stage.

The comic climax is the ridiculous community pageant (“How Captain Vancouver discovered Idle Arm”) and individual talent show the villagers present for their honoured guests, where Heath gives each actor the opportunity to showcase her (it’s an almost entirely female company) particular gift—break dancing, tap dancing, acrobatics—as well as collaborate in a fantastic company tableau. These sequences are great.

But for much of the show the student actors seem to have been encouraged to improvise business and sotto voce dialogue and not worry too much about standing still or picking up cues. The kind of highly physical theatre of which Heath himself, an ex-Cirque du Soleil-er, is a master requires discipline and restraint to succeed. The temptation to sacrifice stage discipline for loosey-goosey creativity and coarse acting sometimes makes this look like high school skit night. But fortunately, there’s more than enough inspired hilarity to make the audience forgive the indulgences and appreciate the loopy talent.

Jerry Wasserman

last updated: Tuesday, December 28, 2004 8:07 PM
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