Fools Rush In

Not enough heaving bodices: Jon Cranney and Jim Lichtscheidl in The Woman in Black

Sled dogs milled outside the Theatre de la Jeune Lune on Saturday night. They happily wagged their tails and licked waiting patrons on the backs of their hands, tongues and hot breath leaving a sour stink on the skin that would remain throughout the evening. In the meanwhile, seven women in comely red-and-gold costumes stood in a tight group onstage, looking for all the world as if they could be opened up and placed one inside the next like a children's toy. The women sang Russian folk songs in close harmony, serenading the audience for The Government Inspector as they found their seats.

David Ball's new translation of Nikolai Gogol's acerbic farce is ideal for the cast of the Jeune Lune, stripping the dialogue down to a vinegary essence and inserting a gleefully obscene sensibility. This gives the cast plenty of space for their famous bits of comic business, which grow in physicality and complexity until it seems likely that a trapeze will lower from the ceiling and elephants will march through the theater. But neither a trapeze nor elephants arrive, and Gogol's relentless plotting plows forward, oblivious of the circus it is threatening to become.

Gogol's story tells of a cadre of dunderheaded small-town officials and a dapper spendthrift named Ivan Alexandrovich Klestakov, whom they have mistaken for a visiting official. Terrified that Klestakov will report their many peccadilloes to the tsar, they shower him with gifts and hospitality, which he receives greedily. Gogol's collection of petty bureaucrats and small-town gentry are cultural symbols in his native country, and the Jeune Lune cast seizes upon these characters as an opportunity for comic extravagance. From Dominique Serrand and Brian Baumgartner's monstrous, twinlike landowners to Luverne Seifert's wheedling Charities Director, the troupe takes every opportunity to create humorous grotesqueries.

None onstage is more grotesque than Steven Epp, who radically re-envisions the character of the mayor's wife as a mix between a mordant drag queen and Joan Collins (a perfectly sensible mix, in retrospect). Epp alternates between pawing Klestakov (played by Sarah Agnew in another example of this production's refusal to cast according to gender) and flinging toilet paper at the mayor's idiotic, party-hatted daughter, acted with a vacant serenity by Leah Price. "How could I have given birth to such a piece of shit?" Epp brays at Price, looking as if he were going to beat the girl with a wire coat hanger. This makes for an abundantly amusing evening of clowning, but the production's brash profanity minimizes some of Gogol's deeper sense of menace.

The character of Klestakov comes off as a charming cad in Sarah Agnew's performance, spreading her arms and crying out delightedly, "What is life but for such pleasures!" But the Klestakov that emerges from Gogol's longer original script is a darker creature, a sociopath who lives on society's margins, feasting on the gullibility of stupider men. In one excised line, Klestakov claims to have written the entirety of The Marriage of Figaro as a magazine article. In another cut line, Klestakov declares of himself, "I am awe inspiring, aren't I?" His abuse in the original is crueler, his ego more inflated, and his manipulations more naked.

Agnew's Klestakov, by comparison, occasionally risks disappearing amid the buffoonery that surrounds her, and the mistreatment she heaps on others has the sting of mild teasing rather than the stab of criminal psychopathology. As a result, while her performance is oftentimes delightful, it has the fleeting, insubstantial quality of a modern Russian banking operation: Now you see it; now you don't.


In an ingenious bit of staging, the two actors at the Fitzgerald Theater gamely have a go at generating theatrical suspense, starting their play by creating sets out of empty boxes and cajoling each other to tell the story of a spectral apparition that haunts the English countryside.

A joint production between the Fitzgerald and the Minneapolis Actors' Theater, The Woman in Black recalls the delirious horror melodramas that England's Hammer Studios filmed in the Seventies (Dracula A.D. 1972, To the Devil a Daughter), but without the necessary imperial menace of actors like Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Also missing from this production are zaftig actresses such as Caroline Munro and Ingrid Pitt, whose response to jeopardy was to hyperventilate in such a way that their ample bosoms seemed ready to burst from their tight bodices. To this play's detriment, neither scenery-chewing villainy nor distracting cleavage is on hand to camp up this rather dreary ghost story about a mysterious woman with a terrifying face.

Lacking a proper sense of its own ridiculousness, what remains is a superb collection of quirky characters and a touching--if overwrought--reliance on the power of language to spark the imagination. Adapted in 1978 by Stephen Mallatratt from the contemporary horror novel by Susan Hill, the phrases that roll off the tongues of this play's characters are so purple that it is a wonder the cast does not choke on them. In Hill's gothic English countryside, no darkness is unfrosted and no tale goes without chilling the spine. This leads to ponderous utterances such as "But now the dampness and fogs had stolen away like thieves into the night, the sky was pricked over with stars, and the full moon rimmed with a halo of frost." One waits for the play's cast of two to pause after each sentence and gasp for air. Actors Jon Cranney and Jim Lichtscheidl do not do so, displaying a mastery of breath that must be the most supernatural thing about this production. They bring to the stage florid, haunted performances that very nearly succeed in creating real menace.

Cranney in particular must work overtime, as the play relies on his character to portray a dozen uniquely decrepit old men. This he does by casually flinging on new overcoats, all hanging from hooks at one end of the stage. He scowls, growls, and sneezes as he warns of sinister goings-on near the bogs, and his thick accent and gaunt features create the atmosphere of the play more effectively than the frequent, cleverly used sound and lighting cues.

Unfortunately, these tinny, prerecorded screams and flashing lights can only create so much fear in an audience, and the play never loosens its starched collar enough to engage in any real savagery. Rather than the "mortal dread and terror of spirit" Lichtscheidl promises in one of his laborious monologues, we are given creaking rocking chairs and faces lit by flashlights. The play contains all the features of a horror story except dread, and the results feel very much as though a telescript from Dark Shadows has been staged at the Fitzgerald.

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