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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gogol Adaptation a Strange Brew

Nobody can accuse Vladimir Mirzoyev of lacking imagination. Like an inventive cook, he doesn't just mix things up, he gives you the works. A wild concoction -- horseradish and cinnamon.

And then he dares you not to like it. As if to say, "only imbeciles won't like this!"

"Khlestakov," Mirzoyev's creative rendition of Nikolai Gogol's "The Inspector General" at the Stanislavsky Theater, is the director's second assault on the classic 19th-century author in less than two years. In June 1994, he marked his return to Moscow after several years in Canada with an energetic, unorthodox version of Gogol's "The Marriage." That impressive show, featuring two actresses in each female part, irritated traditionalists and delighted appreciative audiences.

In principle "Khlestakov" is much the same, only with lots more of it.

This is no mere story about a slippery Petersburg clerk duping a provincial town into thinking he is a high-placed government official. It is a frantic Freudian fantasy on the themes of duplicity, power and stupidity, tinged with Oriental motifs.

That's all fine and good, and there are times when this aggressively strange show catches fire and sparkles. But just as often it fizzles, smothered by the director's overconfidence that every unexpected trick he pulls is interesting and/or funny.

Standing center stage is Ivan Khlestakov, the low-level clerk whose appearance in the town with his servant Osip brings down humiliation on the mayor and local bureaucrats, and sends the mayor's wife and daughter into paroxysms of sexual longing.

This Khlestakov is unlike any before him. Played as a lump of raw, animal instinct by Maxim Sukhanov, he appears as a kind of whirling dervish, spinning liltingly with the tails of his Eastern robe fluttering about him, and leaves on a "magic carpet" pulled by the mysterious, Magus-like Osip (Vladimir Korenev). Khlestakov's bald head, slanted eyes and crude manner suggest the spirit of an invading Genghis Khan.

The mayor (Vladimir Smirnov), Khlestakov's biggest victim, is an obsequious, grinning fool who, even if he does suspect he is being duped, is too spellbound by the visitor's insolence to combat it.

The only prop of note in Pavel Kaplevich's set (based on Dmitry Alexeyev's futuristic set from "The Marriage") is a multi-purpose, metal-frame bunk bed. Depending upon the scene, it becomes a prison cell, a baby's crib, a place to lounge aimlessly or a place for making love.

Love, or more properly sex, is split here into two categories: the physical act, bearing tinges of rape, and the state of unsatisfied arousal. The former is portrayed in Khlestakov's trysts with a hotel servant (changed to a female from Gogol's male character) and with a girl (not in Gogol's play) offered as a bribe (both played by Viktoria Tolstoganova).

More effective are Khlestakov's encounters with the mayor's wife Anna (Yulia Rutberg) and his daughter Marya (Zhanna Epple). It is no coincidence that the production's finest moments come with these two actresses flanking the hero as he rattles off a litany of lies about his life in the capital. Anna's cloying, overripe desire is shaded well by Marya's breathless, newly-awakened passion.

Flitting in and out are a trio of "women victims," whose purpose was unclear to nearly everyone.

Mirzoyev lopped off the play's ending, which shows the townspeople learning of Khlestakov's ruse. Instead, all are left in a state of ambiguous, heightened expectation as Khlestakov "flies" off on his carpet. Gogol's famous finale -- a dumb scene of the motionless cast staring at the audience -- has been moved to the curtain calls.

"Khlestakov" is alternately disgusting, boring, wonderful or fascinating. But one conclusion is unavoidable: Gogol is a better writer than Mirzoyev is a director. And the closer the latter follows the former, the more intriguing his production looks.

"Khlestakov" plays March 6, 24, 28 and 31 at 7 p.m. at the Stanislavsky Drama Theater, 23 Tverskaya Ulitsa. Tel. 299-7224. Running time: 3 hours, 30 mins.