By John Quinn
My mother’s first response upon hearing that I was seeing a Russian comedy was, “There are Russian comedies?” Yakov Smirnoff would answer, “Many people are surprised to hear that we have comedians in Russia, but they are there. They are dead, but they are there.” The Russians are stereotypically a dour people, but that has more to do with their weather and political science than innate disposition. The Russians indeed have comedies, and some of the best were penned by Ukrainian-born Nikolai Gogol, who, with rapier-sharp wit, skewered the social conventions of tsarist Russia. The Hilberry Theatre dips yet again into the funny fountain with “Marriage,” a sly, satirical farce that raps the “popular institution” upside the head.
The Hilberry is blessed with long-time patrons, many of whom will remember a previous Gogol romp, “The Inspector General” from 2006. The troupe moves from exposing government corruption to poking fun at an old-country practice, the arranged marriage.
While “Marriage” was published in 1843, Gogol had a 21st century cynicism about matrimonial traditions, and he didn’t have the Kardashians for role models. Bashful bachelor Ivan Kuzmich Podkolyosin (Brent Griffith) has hired Fiokla the Matchmaker (Sarah Hawkins-Moan) to find him a suitable bride. Her choice is an orphan with property, Agafya Tikhonovna (Annie Keris). The presence of the matchmaker alerts Kochkariev (Ty Mitchell), our swain’s best friend, that wedding bells might chime. Cursed with an unhappy marriage (courtesy of Fiokla), Kochkariev insists – nay, demands – that the hesitant Podkolyosin woo and win the maiden without delay. After all, misery loves company.
The duo are about to try an end-run around Fiolka and deprive her of her commission, so she finds three more unsuitable suitors for the dithering Agafya. They are Chris Call’s blustering bully, who’s only in it for the money; a foppish, intellectual poseur played by Miles Boucher, and a retired Navy lieutenant, Zhevakin (Topher Payne), a crashing bore. Can Kochkariev outwit Fiolka and her three stooges and unite the reluctant couple in wedded bliss?
Pardon me; this alphabet borscht has given my spell check indigestion. Gogol has great fun satirizing unusual Russian names – Chris Call’s character, in this adaptation by Barbara Field, is named Poach’Tegg (whisper that under your breath; you’ll get it). He also plays with the snobbish notion that to be sophisticated, one must speak French. But first and foremost, Gogol won’t let us forget that a marriage of convenience need not be a happy one.
James Thomas directs a tight ensemble in performing some pretty sophisticated material. The production hums when the scenes are played broadly for farce; less successful when the action goes a little over the top. Yet “Marriage” never falls into camp. Even the redoubtable Joshua Blake Rippy, who cross-dresses to play Aunt Arina, Agafya’s formidable guardian, delivers a thoughtful, measured performance.
As funny as the shtick can be, the play is at its very best in some quieter moments. Most memorable is a “getting to know you” scene starring Keris and Griffith, a gentle blend of uncomfortable silences, awkward conversation and Granny Smith apples. Even silence is golden; Payne’s Zhevakin resolutely squaring his shoulders on his exit is mute testimony that the rejected lieutenant is down but not out.
There are some puzzling choices in design. Michael Wilkki’s set is rather cartoonish, dominated by a giant pastel wedding cake that might have come from a confectionary in Wonderland. It oddly contrasts with a script that was at the forefront of the realism aesthetic of Russian theater. Cartoonish, too, are some, but not all, of Clare Hungate-Hawk’s costumes. The three suitors are decked in oversized hats and garish colors; the rest of the characters in suitable period clothing. One can only assume that the contrast is deliberate, sort of delineating the freaks from the geeks.
Gogol’s targets may be outdated, but the satirist’s ultimate goal is to expose pretentiousness and hypocrisy in any time. “Marriage” is an opportunity to reflect on our own foibles.
Or as Yakov Smirnoff might have said, “In Soviet Russia, Art criticizes YOU!”
Hilberry Theatre, 4743 Cass Ave., Detroit. Plays in rotating repertory through April 6. 2 hours. $12-30. 313-577-2972. http://www.Hilberry.com