Arts & Events

Theater Review: 'Way Out West'--Adaptation of 'The Inspector General' Set in Early California

Ken Bullock
Friday April 14, 2017 - 05:36:00 PM

"And what's wrong with a little palm oil?"

The shrewd, self-styled cynics of an end-of-the-road frontier town have caught wind of a government official traveling incognito from the capital, sure to report all kinds of their civic chicanery and official laxity to the powers on high after he sneaks into their burg--or gouges the locals, promising to overlook their many peccadilloes ... And so they brace themselves for the onslaught, planning a big, overly-friendly welcome--and a lot of exaggerated bribery--as a counterattack ...

The Ross Valley Players are presenting Joel Eis' original play--or should we say, original adaptation, 'Way Out West,' which was developed under their auspices, onstage at the Barn, a kind of double-barreled tour de force, certainly something with a couple of twists--an adaptation of Nicolai Gogol's great satiric farce, 'The Inspector General,' reset in newly Americanized San Francisco on the eve of the Gold Rush, its wildly humorous dialogue become American tall tale banter.  


But it's not simply Gogol gone Spaghetti Western, as James Dunn once famously rebranded 'Taming of the Shrew' down the road apiece at College of Marin--and around the world at the Edinburgh Festival. Eis's Frisco Primitive is less the actual former Yerba Buena that a few months before hauled down the Mexican flag at the Presidio, replacing it with a soon-to-be starrier Stars & Stripes ... than it is a state of mind, a slapstick platform where the farce, slmost a doorslammer, of 'Inspector General' is mounted, more akin to how Larry Gelbart treated Ben Jonson's great comedy 'Volpone,' reducing it in the culinary sense to a concoction: farce, not in Elizabethan dress, but Volpone the fox dressed up in crinoline and brocade as The Gay Nineties on Nob or Rincon Hill. 

It's all meant in fun, as director Buzz Halsing declares in his notes, admitting a deliberate playfulness, fast and loose, with period facts, as telegrams, Pony Express and the city of Reno are all referenced, each actually coming into existence a decade or two later, the first supplanting the second as machine age technology brought in new forms of transcontinental travel and communication--and whole cities like Reno with them ... 

'The Inspector General' was staged nearly halfway around the world from 'Way Out West's' setting and a dozen years before its supposed time. Tsar Nicholas personally intervened to make a production in St. Petersburg possible. From an anecdote Gogol heard from the great Alexander Pushkin, whom Dostoyevsky credited with virtually founding Russian literature, about being mistaken for a government inspector on a trip to the provinces, Gogol came up with a crazy satire of corrupt small town muckty-mucks (and higher-up bureaucrats) that became such a hit with both the Tsar and the public, the backlash from officialdom drove Gogol out of the country. 

'The Inspector General' has been revived over and over, most notably in the 1920s by the great stage director V. S. Meyerhold, teacher of film pioneer Sergei Eisenstein, whose production, incorporating elements ftom other writings of Gogol, became an international sensation. Silent film clips from Meyerhold's experimental, stylized show can be found on YouTube. The physical stylization followed Meyerhold's dictum, "The Grotesque is a triumph of Form over Content," complimenting his description of 'The Inspector General' as "not an absurd comedy, but a comedy about an absurd situation," taken to the limit. 

The cast Buzz Halsing directed plays grotesques, though maybe more in Sherwood Anderson's sense, from Anderson's seminal book about provincial towns, 'Winesburg, Ohio,' than Meyerhold's: "It was his notion that the moment one of the people snatched up one of the truths to himself, called it his truth and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood." 

From Alex Ross' portrayal of "Mayor Rabbit's Foot," smug in his self-satisfied humor of having seen it all, thus being con-proof, to Richard Friedlander's Judge Carter, more card shark than magistrate, to Stacy Anderson playing the sarcastic head of municipal charities, Hortense Brewer, to literally two-faced (or doubke-hatted) Police Chief/Postmaster Lucius Potter (Javier Alacon) and Ida May Dobkins (Carrie Fisher-Coppola) with Ike Bobkins (Ralph Kalbus) as the village bumpkins, the locals are almost begging to be raked by the first con man to disembark. 

The mayor's wife Pearl (Pam Drummer-Williams) and ingenue daughter Rose-Marie (Keara Reardon) would in fact gladly welcome a rake to flatter them, pay them court in their provincial isolation at any price. 

Maureen Coyne plays Maxine, the maid and factotum in the mayor's household, who narrates the action and backstory at start and finish, but whose pivotal role gets muted during the second and third act, as it were ... 

John Anthony Nolan as Ridgeway, former barber from Saint Louie, faux valet and real partner-in-crime to the mistaken government inspector, is the sole melancholic, the realistic grump (complimenting Maxine) in this nest of ninnies, as he and con man Rex Reynard (Paul Stout)--the real Volpone or Sly Fox--ease into town, hiding out in its one hotel, until flushed out by their over-eager prey, mistaking Reynard, the mysterious stranger in town, for the rumored dread government man come to audit. 

Stout and Nolan get palms for their energy in moving the tale along, spurred too by Keara Reardon's madcap vivacity. 

In the end, word comes in of someone announcing the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill--Sam Brannan, no doubt--ushering out the brief era of San Francisco as one horse, dead end town, and ushering in the crowd of real grotesques of the Gold Rush, then Comstock Lode--and a new era in American humor, periodically refreshed through the 1960s. 

Thursdays at 7:30, Fridays and Saturdays at 8, Sundays at 2 through April 23 at the Barn Theatre, 30 Sir Francis Drake Boulevard (at Lagunitas Road), Ross, Marin County (old Art & Garden Center). Tickets: $20 general, $15 under 25. or (415) 456-9555 x. 1