Revisor: conceptually seductive, emotionally not so much

Kidd Pivot is presenting Revisor at the Vancouver Playhouse.

The guy is on fire: Doug Letheren as the Deputy. (Photo by Michael Slobodian. Costume by Nancy Bryant)

 

 

 

I was dazzled by the skill, intellectually intrigued, and emotionally and viscerally removed.

With Revisor, writer Jonathon Young and choreographer Crystal Pite sink deep into Nikolai Gogol’s play, which is best known as The Inspector General.

Gogol’s 1842 script was inspired by a Russian story that might be true. When the Deputy (or Mayor) of a small town gets a tip that a government inspector is about to arrive incognito, the Deputy and his fellow officials madly scramble to cover up their corruption and misdeeds. When the bureaucrats mistake a minor civil servant for the inspector, the clerk recognizes their error, happily accepts their bribes—and plots to expose them.

Revisor employs two main stylistic modes. In the first, the performers lip sync to recordings of actors speaking Young’s dialogue, while embodying the characters with extreme expressionistic movement. It’s kind of like a drag version of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

And it’s fantastic—for a while. Playing the Deputy, Doug Letheren’s movement is insanely disjointed and predatory. He lurches around, head low, all of the parts of his body moving independently but somehow in confluence. He’s like a cartoon wolf—that you wouldn’t want to mess with. The Deputy’s wife (Cindy Salgado) is all giddy, fluttering sexuality wrapped in a cloud of pink chiffon. And Ella Rothschild’s Minister of Culture is like the Russian spy Natasha from the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons: a dark, blunt parody of threat—but with sudden balletic extensions.

Stylistically, this is all as original as fuck, impressively well executed, and often very funny. But, after a while, I started to get bored with it. Yeah, yeah corruption. Yeah, yeah, Trump, Trudeau, and all the rest. Beyond that, what’s the point? What’s surprising?

Then Revisor returns to the beginning of the story and flips into its second mode—which is when things get really interesting. In this pass, the characters lose their period costumes and appear in contemporary dancewear—T-shirts, loose trousers, socks—and the voiceover is all about dance notation: “Head of figure 9 initiates descending curve.” (At the point, Revisor commits more fully to dance.)

The story, which had been about mistaken identity, becomes about the struggle to create meaning. So, in a way, it’s about mistaken meaning or approximate meaning—and all of the instability, fear, and even violence that implies. Because the voiceover is spoken by a woman (Meg Roe), the understanding I immediately leapt to was that I was listening to the de facto voice of the choreographer Crystal Pite and that I was witnessing her struggle to find coherence in the creative process.

But the creation of one meaning requires the rejection of other meanings. “This complex is my doing and undoing,” the voice says. “In these figures, I am unified and divided.” And then there’s the desperate rhythmic refrain: “I would like to make one small revision!”

Taking this line of thought back to the more literal—albeit farcical—first mode, it becomes about the potential darkness of identity formation and the pursuit of self-interest: in identifying ourselves, we run the risk of dehumanizing others. The Deputy and his cronies torture prisoners.

For me at least, Revisor is a meditation on consciousness and its pitfalls; I’m grateful for its sophistication.

And the production values are through the roof. Nancy Bryant’s costumes range from the Deputy’s exaggerated fur hat and quasi-military epaulets to a darkly surreal creature that emerges in the second mode, with antler hands and a fish-like exposed spine. Jay Gower Taylor’s set is elemental: a dark, textured backdrop, some heavy furniture, and iconic pieces, including a gigantic multi-paned window. Tom Visser’s lighting is astonishing. In one effect, a series of lightning-like bursts illuminate the bottom of the translucent backdrop and the bursts move from stage left to stage right as if the instrument is on a track. However it happens, it’s startling and sinister. There’s a dream team of composers and sound designers on this show, too: Owen Belton, Alessandro Juliani, and Meg Roe. Mostly, I was aware of the sound when it was at its most obvious: in the quasi-military nostalgia of a lyrical passage or the rhythmic frenzy I referred to earlier.

Kidd Pivot, the producing company, is grounded in dance, of course. Pite is a master choreographer and she’s working with some of the best dancers in the world. I admire the resourcefulness: there’s a sequence in which a second clerk is hiding under a bed, illuminated by Visser in his cramped space. His sped-up, stuttering movement makes it look like he’s in a silent movie: it also looks like he’s short-circuiting. Extremely specific isolation of body parts plays a big role in Pite’s game and Revisor contains some sensually inviting weight-bearing and lifts: a hand behind a neck, a neck on a foot, one performer’s body floating over another’s shoulder.

Moment by moment, I found the dance gorgeous to look at, but I never really felt like I was in it, if you know what I mean. Maybe that’s because I don’t see much dance these days and I’ve forgotten how to receive it. Maybe it’s because I’m getting old and my body isn’t as instinctively empathetic as it once was.

But I suspect it also has to do with the fact that I’m just not that into The Inspector General as a story. Its critique seems obvious to me. Young and Pite’s exploration is conceptually intriguing. But it never really landed in my flesh.

REVISOR Written by Jonathon Young. Choreographed and directed by Crystal Pite. A Kidd Pivot production at the Playhouse Theatre on Wednesday, February 20. Continues until February 23.Tickets(sold out).

 

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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