From left, Kevin Kelly, Rob Burgess, and Arjun Pande. Photo by John Ulman.
From left, Kevin Kelly, Rob Burgess, and Arjun Pande. Photo by John Ulman.
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The Russians have invaded Seattle, but there’s no need to worry. These Russians are merely armed with laughter. The madcap crew at Seattle Shakespeare Company disarms you with their slapstick antics and perfect comedic timing. It’s their hilarious production of Nicolai Gogol’s “The Government Inspector.”  

A Russian/Ukrainian dramatist and novelist, Gogol released almost 200 years of laughter when he penned this 1836 play, a silly but scathing mistaken-identity satire on the stupidity, corruption and arrogance of Imperial Russia. SSC calls it “Bribery, Bureaucracy, and Buffoonery.”

Gogol’s creation has a new adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher.  It is also SSC’s first foray into Russian comedy, and Allison Narver’s directing debut at SSC.

Hatcher did not disappoint, nor did Narver. Their efforts have produced an uproarious farce with a samovar full of hysterical one-liners and a rambunctiously headlong pace that could rival the Kentucky Derby.

Welcome to a small Russian village (where people eat soup with their hands), headed by bamboozling Mayor Anton Antonovich and his cronies. They are all on the take. And they all go berserk when they discover the Czar is sending an incognito inspector to their backwater hamlet to spy on them.  

During a frenzy to cover up their misdeeds, they get word that a suspicious stranger has already arrived. The village honchos band together in an attempt to avert disaster through bribery, lies, and a comic web of crooked deals. They’re desperate to protect their corruption. Sound familiar? (Try to imagine that our dear leader discovered that a special prosecutor was planning to investigate his cohorts. Or him.)

The stranger, however, is not an inspector; but one Ivan Alexandreyevich Khlestakov, a foppish, out-of-work, out-of-money civil servant. When the officials — or should we say buffoons — accost the bewildered Khlestakov with offers of money and favors, he soon figures out what’s going on and has a field day by assuming the role of the Tsar’s right-hand man. There’s an endless parade of officials handing out cash to Ivan. In addition, the mayor’s bold, lascivious wife Anna, a wickedly delicious Sara Waisanen, has other favors in mind.  

Note: Everything that happens in “The Government Inspector” occurs over the course of one day.

And what a day it is!  The Marx Brothers meet Carol Burnett and Saturday Night Live. Then double the silliness. To add to the mayhem, several performers play double and triple roles — sometimes their gender match, sometimes not. Whatever, it’s clear they are having as much fun as the audience.

R. Hamilton Wright certainly is. With his faux, spiked hairdo pointing in all directions, he’s in fine fettle as the imitation infiltrator, Khlestakov. Wright’s shenanigans and delightful comedic timing remind this critic of Martin Short, but in truth, Wright could teach the Canadian comedian a few tricks.

When Khlestakov catches on to the mayor’s game, he out-grifts the grifters. As for his diverse wig collection, he has a Rusky of a time deciding which one to wear when he tries to woo the mayor’s gloomy daughter, Marya. Shanna Allman is hysterically doleful, playing the role as if she’s just escaped from a 12-step retreat for Russian goths.

The names of Gogol’s character have deeper meanings, especially amusing if you speak the language. For example, the mayor’s name is Anton Antonovich Skvoznik Dumakhanovsky. Translated into Ukrainian it means “a windbag fond of blowing his own trumpet.” Rob Burgess does exactly that, as he embodies the Mayor with boisterous bombasticity. A perfect fool, he’s garrulous and loves the sound of his own voice, especially when he directs his “yes-mayor” minions to use any means, mostly cash, to halt the investigation and hush the inspector.

The whole village is cockeyed crooked. The sly postmaster (Jonelle Jordan) reads everyone’s mail before delivering it. (The iconic Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky once played the role for a benefit.) The Police Chief (the dashing Brace Evans) dresses the part, but he’s hard put to recruit a reliable force. The know-it-all hospital director (Susanna Burney) — the hospital is so small, its rooms are like kennels — has just hired a doctor who towers two feet over the other officials and can barely speak the language.

The spacey school principal (Brandon J. Simmons) brags about athletic funding, but is completely lost when he talks about curriculum. Plus, there may be goats in the schoolyard — in fact, he thinks a goat may have been valedictorian. Two greedy but doofus landowners, Dobchinsky and Bobchinsky, look and act as if they are twins. Actors Arjun Pande and Kevin Kelly have experience. They portrayed the Dromio twins in SSC’s 2015 production of “The Comedy of Errors.”

The munchkin-sized waitress is played by Douglas Fries (He also plays the doctor.), who wears rollers in his—  oops, her — wig and walks on his knees. We know that because the bottom ruffle of his frock offers a peek.

Now for a confession: Unlike Oprah’s “ah ha” moment, this critic had a “ha-ha” moment every time the inn’s servant Grusha, the divine Imogen Love (in a triple role as the judge and Locksmith’s wife), came on stage. Time has taken its toll on Grusha, or else she’s two centuries ahead of the women’s cast-off-your-bra movement. Unlike Gloria Steinem, Grusha is no Playboy Bunny. Garbed in a drab brown gown (if you could call it that), she carries a dreadful burden.

Alas, gravity has taken its toll. Grusha’s stooped shoulders lost the battle with her sagging bosom, which now hangs to her waist, one drooping a few inches lower than the other. The amazing Love carries it off — carries may not be the right word — with deadpan sincerity. This critic almost had to be restrained; she wanted to jump on stage and award a Tony right then and there, if for no other reason than Love’s willingness to appear in such an udderly, dowdy costume. And another award goes to costume designer Pete Rush for his floppy version of a buxom disaster.

All the to-ing and fro-ing take place on Julia Welch’s set design, a series of panels and doors that move around to fit the scene. When the show begins, thanks to Crystal Dawn Munkers’ choreography, the actors enter and execute a dream-like “dance of the doors.”  And throughout the play, the doors keep moving — almost as much as the cast members who whirl in and whirl out. Sometimes they exit through the wrong door and wind up in the closet. Sometimes they all talk at once. And sometimes they crowd together in madcap tableaus. But they are always funny.

The original idea for Gogol’s play came from his comrade, Alexander Pushkin, the beloved Russian writer and poet. As legend tells it, he encountered a similar situation, while visiting a remote town. And after reading a copy, Czar Nicolas I liked it so much, he requested the first theatrical production … even though it lampooned much of what was wrong under his rule.

“The Government Inspector” is considered the greatest comedy Russia has ever produced. However, Russian humor may differ from American humor. After all, Chekov thought his melancholy plays were comedies. Gogol’s satire will probably not grace the censored Russian stage under Putin’s rule, or for that matter, be performed at the White House. But “The Government Inspector” tickles Seattle’s funny bone. And gives us a well-needed break from our dotard’s mendacity, along with the updates of Russia’s political perfidy.

"The Government Inspector," runs through Nov. 19 at the Center Theatre at Seattle Center; ticket range from $30-$55, discounts are available for groups of 10 or more. For more information, go to www.seattleshakespeare.org or contact the box office at 206-733-8222.