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Philadelphia-area theater hides some fascinating secrets — few more intriguing than Bryn Mawr College’s two annual productions. Acted by undergraduates and professionally directed and designed, they are always challenging, unusual, and often superb. For example, Nikolai Gogol's The Government Inspector, in a new adaptation by Armina LaManna (who also translated from the Russian) and David O'Connor, directed by Adrienne Mackey of Swim Pony Productions.
Though directors Mark Lord and Catharine Slusar teach at Bryn Mawr, they often host innovative guest directors. Mackey created a devised piece, Crossing Bryn Mawr (Spring 2015); Ninth Planet's Sam Tower directed Jeremy Gable's Particular Risk (Spring 2017); and Seonjae Kim staged her "Riot Grrrl adaptation," Riot Antigone (Fall 2017).
Mackey heightens this 1836 comedy's dark absurdity in a stylish production no less funny, but much sharper-edged and political, than the last local version by the Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium in February 2016.
I won't pretend to understand Maiko Matsushima's massive, forceful yellow-and-black overhanging set piece, but it's damn imposing. Mackey otherwise uses only a few furniture pieces (including four leather executive chairs on wheels) in the otherwise bare Hepburn Teaching Theater, boldly lit by Lily Fossner.
Mackey frames the play and connects scenes with loud, driving punk and rap, including the West Philadelphia Orchestra, Russkaja, Bratmobile, and, aptly enough, Gogol Bordello.
No men required
Since Bryn Mawr is a women's college, most plays are cast overwhelmingly female, though they partner with Haverford College for theater productions. This often means choosing or creating plays with large casts of women. In The Government Inspector, 13 undergrads play all the (mostly male) roles, wearing Matsushima's artfully stylized period costumes and harsh, lurid makeup but their own hair. No attempt is made, or needed, to sound like men.
Emily Lobel excels in the title role — except her character, Khlestakov, is not an inspector sent to a small town by the government. The Mayor (Eliza Waterman) and the town's nervous pack of leaders (Sydney Ethen, Madeleine Kerno, Anna Hsu, Felicia Grable, Kate Smokowicz, and Leah Jarvik) assume a stranger is the feared inspector. In a panic, they try to cover up their laziness and corruption to keep government money flowing into their pockets, using bribes and more corruption.
Lobel's crafty Khlestakov plays dumb until realizing the special treatment foisted on him could prove profitable and enjoyable, especially when the Mayor's wife (Victoria Hartson) and daughter (Katie Hughes) both express carnal desires. How far will the town leaders go to gain his favor?
A unified effort
Diyal Patel, Saria Rosenhaj, and Olivia Xing complete the cast, who confidently create a unified, extreme, and exhausting physical style, plus nuanced vocal performances that exaggerate the characters' loud outbursts yet allow for specific, meaningful, and often funny pauses.
The many Bryn Mawr plays I've seen over the years — though they don't advertise, and for a long time discouraged reviews — have proven their theater program's artistic leadership and creativity remain consistently surprising and fresh, and their student actors bring enthusiasm, dedication, and intelligence to their productions.
I'm tempted to keep this secret to myself, but that would violate some unwritten critics' code, or at least my own. Bryn Mawr's unpredictable and eclectic theater offerings are too good not to recommend.
What, When, Where
The Government Inspector. By Nikolai Gogol, adapted by Armina LaManna and David O'Connor, translated by Armina LaManna, Adrienne Mackey directed. Bi-College Theater of Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges. Through November 17, 2018, at Bryn Mawr College's Hepburn Teaching Theater, Goodhart Hall, 150 N. Merion Avenue, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. (610) 526-5210 or brynmawr.edu/theater.
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