An old play with a new look

Entertainment,Music,Barbara Mackay

Nikolai Gogol's "The Government Inspector" is one of the funniest comedies ever writtenm and Jeffrey Hatcher's adaptation at the Shakespeare Theatre Company skillfully plays up the farcical nature of this 1836 satire of greed, stupidity and corruption in 19th-century Russia. Then director Michael Kahn eases the play even further toward absurdity. The result is an extremely entertaining work about vanity, a classic that has been completely refreshed.

Gogol's plot begins with a low-level government clerk going to the provinces, where he is mistaken for an important inspector general who is supposed to assess how well the town is run. When the main officials hear of this government inspector, they panic, as they know that the town depends on bribery. They devise a plan to make their city, and themselves, look as impressive as possible.

Derek Smith is delightful as Hlestakov, the clerk. He begins as a vain, foolish young man, without enough money to pay for his room in a flea-bitten inn. But once he is adopted by the leading citizens of the town, he blossoms, taking on a new character, making up extravagant lies about the important people he knows in St. Petersburg. The part calls for an actor easy with verbal and physical comedy, and Smith delivers on all counts.

Hlestakov's servant, Osip, is portrayed by Liam Craig, who handily captures the character's nonchalant lack of respect for his master. The mayor, a man who embodies the very soul of graft and corruption, is skillfully played as an unctuous manipulator by Rick Foucheux. His cohorts, the judge (David Sabin), the school principal (Craig Wallace) and the hospital director (Lawrence Redmond) are expertly portrayed as money-grubbing poseurs.

» Where: The Shakespeare Theatre Company, Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW

» When: Through Oct. 28

» Info: $43 to $95; 202-547-1122;

'The Government Inspector'

Floyd King is particularly good as the postmaster, who opens everyone's mail. Tom Story is very funny as the doctor, who knows no Russian. Nancy Robinette is priceless as the mayor's lascivious wife, and Claire Brownell is a delight as his affectless daughter.

Sarah Marshall is excellent in three roles (Grusha, the innkeeper's wife and the corporal's widow). Harry Winter and Hugh Nees are hilarious as the personality-lacking twins Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky.

James Noone's set effectively places the action in a once-elegant, slightly fading Russian world. Murell Horton's costumes give just the right sense of bourgeois inappropriateness and excess to the villagers' clothes, exaggerating the play's inherent satire. Anne Nesmith's wigs reflect the 19th-century Russian fashion, with great loops of hair standing straight up.

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