Stage Door Review

Revisor

Friday, March 8, 2019

✭✭✭✭✩

written by Jonathon Young, directed and choreographed by Crystal Pite 

Kidd Pivot, Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto

March 7-17, 2019

Narrator: “I am within this even as I contain this”

The successor to Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young’s Betroffenheit (2015), a profound dance/theatre piece about grief, is the duo’s Revisor, a work as comic as the other was serious. It is based on the 1836 comedy The Government Inspector by Nikolai Gogol (1809-52) about the people of a small town fearing the discovery of their rampant corruption. The result takes Pite and Young’s blending of theatre and dance a step farther than before to create a work that is physically demanding and beautifully performed, farcical and intellectual in equal measure.

The Government Inspector whose title in Russian is Ревизор is usually transcribed in English “Revizor”. Pite and Young have deliberately used the title Revisor (pronounced as “reviser”) to allude not only to Gogol’s play but to refer to the act of revising, both of which are important components of the work. 

In Gogol’s play the officials of a small town headed by its mayor learn that a government inspector will be arriving in disguise to investigate them. The owner of an inn tells them a suspicious person his staying there and all assume that person must be the inspector. In fact, it is a minor civil servant named Khlestakov, who has been charging the cost of his room to the Crown. This leads everyone to bribe Khlestikov hoping he will overlook their misdeeds and the Mayor even allows his wife and daughter to flirt with him in public. Thinking they may soon be found out, Khlestakov and his valet Osip flee, leaving the townsfolk to believe they are safe, only to discover their mistake and learn that the real government inspector is about to arrive.

Jonathon Young has taken Gogol’s play and stripped it down to its bare minimum. The highest official is called the “Director of the Complex”, terminology that could mean a housing complex or something much vaguer. Khlestakov has no name and is referred to only as the “Revisor” and, most important, is a woman who has disguised herself as a man. The “complex” is thus mistaken about the Revisor in both rank and gender. Young has omitted the romance between Khlestakov and the Director’s daughter, though not the flirting of the Director’s Wife (Cindy Salgado) and he omits the announcement of the arrival of the real government inspector. In Young’s version, the Revisor gradually learns of the officials’ mistake but then plays along with them in order to write the most damning report possible about corruption in the town. 

Young has said that his inspiration to adapt The Government Inspector was an article he had read about a group of modern students who were going to Moscow to recreate Russian theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold’s famed 1926 production of the play. In the finale of that production, Meyerhold replaced the actors with dolls to emphasize their manipulability.

A major change in presentation also occurs in Revisor. Nine stage actors have pre-recorded Young’s script. The nine dancers lip-synch their lines but do so with extraordinarily exaggerated, almost cartoonish gestures. Arms suddenly spread wide in surprise by the Director (the exceptionally limber Doug Letheren) can cause him to step back and to spin around. A quick facepalm can cause another to flip backwards. When Postmaster Wieland (an infinitely malleable Jermaine Spivey) utters the fatal rumour of the Inspector’s arrival he shudders in an amazing dance as if all his bones were turning to jelly and reassembling. Though the dancers are working with only spoken words, Pite has ensured that their interpretations of what they say create the familiar arcs, twists and twirls of dance. Pite has said that the dancers “lip-synch with their whole bodies” and that is exactly what we see.

The piece moves forward in this fashion, with the Revisor (Tiffany Tregarthen) mistaken for a high-ranking official and the people of the “complex” fawning over him until the story reaches a certain point. We discover that three officials secretly despise the present Director and would be happy to see him brought to justice. The Doctor (David Rymond) is willing to betray him. When he exits the Interrogator (Rena Narumi) says she is willing to betray the Director and the Doctor. And when she leaves the Minister Desouza (Ella Rothschild) says she is willing to betray them all.

At this point, the music by Owen Belton, Alessandro Juliani and Meg Roe becomes more prominent. The music is mixed with electronic distortions of the dialogue we have just heard. The cast re-enters wearing dance-ready street clothes rather than Nancy Bryant’s quasi-19th-century costumes. In place of the British-accented Narrator we have heard set up the story, we hear a Canadian-accented woman, who now names the steps and poses the dancers should take: “Look left, look right, look down”. 

Under her guidance the dancers re-enact the entire story up to the point where Young had left off as if this were a rehearsal for what we had just seen. This rehearsal includes performing sudden changes of mind the new narrator utters, which the dancers duly carry out with the nimble Matthew Peacock moving about to adjust the dancers’ limbs as if they were Meyerhold’s dolls. Finally, the new Narrator says, “I would like to make one small revision”. It is as if Pite in emphasizing that creating art requires constant revision.  

The work also demonstrates that art can cause us to revise our own opinions. From point of the Narrator’s last statement onwards, the piece becomes almost wholly dance although the music still includes phrases from the play as a series of repeating loops. Here Pite moves the dancers through a sequence of formations from solos to duets with traditional and non-traditional lifts to a grand pas de neuf. If any ever doubted the impeccable discipline of the dancers of Kidd Pivot, they need only watch the ensemble work of this dance where the complex steps and the the seemingly erratic hand-gestures are all performed with the most incredible precision and fluidity.

Pite also uses this section to explore the the fear and guilt of the members of the “complex” and the fear of the Revisor herself. In Tiffany Tregarthen’s terrific solo she writhes, twists and turns while repeatedly reaching up to hold down her head as if it were about to fly off while the text “The subject is moved” plays in a loop. 

After this section, the action returns to lip-synched action and to the Revisor’s departure. Unlike regular productions of Gogol’s play as a play, Revisor does not leave us with a biting satirical view of the inhabitants of the “complex”. Rather, because of the middle dance section where we feel we have experienced the characters’ inner lives, we tend to look on them with pity and even compassion. They are all flawed, greedy human beings, but the arrival even of a false Revisor has forced them to confront their failings and they all seem chastened by the experience as they wave goodbye to a young woman, herself chagrined to have found so much corruption among so small a population.

Working intimately in concert with the spoken word, music and dance are the set design of Jay Gower Taylor and the lighting of Tom Visser. Gower provides a semi-translucent back wall that enhances Visser’s effects such as that of thunder made by lamps popping on and off in sequence along the floor behind the wall. Visser’s indefinable projections that look like neurons or perhaps nebulae help lead us to view Revisor not merely as a farce but an inquiry into the mind and what makes people revise reality to suit themselves. Revisor is a dance/theatre piece that will not only make you laugh, but make you think and will stay with you long after the curtain falls.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Ella Rothschild, Cindy Salgado, Jermaine Spivey, Tiffany Tregarthen, Doug Letheren, David Raymond, Rena Narumi and Matthew Peacock; Doug Letheren as the Director; Renée Sigouin, Cindy Salgado, Rena Narumi, Tiffany Tregarthen, Matthew Peacock, Jermaine Spivey, David Raymond and Doug Letheren. © 2019 Michael Slobodian.

For tickets, visit www.canadianstage.com.