In 1836 the Russian author Nikolai Gogol wrote a play called The Revisor in which not only the corruption but also the profound lack of humanity of government bureaucracies are exploited as farce. In Kidd Pivot’s Revisor, the esteemed Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite teams up with playwright and actor Jonathan Young to recreate Gogol’s comedic take on corruption in high places by bringing together contemporary dance and theatre. Revisor not only reinterprets Gogol’s play, but also uses it as a launching pad for examining both the creative process as well as the darkness lurking in the souls of humans. Especially humans with power. In so doing the work becomes a fun-house mirror of today’s political landscape.
The first part of the work introduces us to the eight dancers, who embody the characters of the play, including the Governor, the postmaster, the wife, and the government inspector (“the revisor”) himself. Except that the government inspector isn’t who the others think he is: he is merely a low-level administrator, sent to “the complex” to move a comma in a legal document. Assuming that he is actually the inspector in disguise, the others bribe him and shower him with attention and alcohol and give him the best room in the house, and of course he goes right along with all of it. Much of the soundtrack of this part is the re-written play, pre-recorded by actors. The dancers move in an exaggeratedly archaic, almost cartoonish manner, each one literally embodying his or her text. The viewer can’t help but laugh.
About half-way through, however, things suddenly change. A rift opens up in the drama, and all of a sudden we are in the mind of, presumably, Pite herself. A voice intones the movements of the dancers—“figure 1 moves two steps to the right… no, figure 1 extends arm, figure 2 traces an arc with left hand while figure 1 grabs wrist”—and so on. In this way, the entirety of the first half is re-enacted as abstract modern dance, with important structural markers articulated: “the Governor changes his position”; “sentences to note here: ‘there are no mass graves,’ ‘no information was obtained under torture,’ ‘there are no missing dissidents.’” Fragments of previously heard dialogue are broadcast as though over a staticy radio. Indeed static informs much of this section—stuttering lights and movements give the impression that we are watching an old play on an old TV with poor reception. Pite explores the interaction between words and bodies: when the Governor “changes his position,” he really changes his position, physically. When “the revisor is deeply moved,” he is literally, physically moved by the other dancers. It is quite hilarious and somewhat disturbing at the same time. This entire section feels like a mild hallucination, like being high and getting lost in a tiny moment and being unsure how much time has passed and what is actually happening and if you should be laughing or frightened. It is quite effective, and frankly feels like much of our media-saturated life today. A shout-out to the lighting and music, which are extremely innovative and integral to the work.
Eventually we get back to the actual drama, in which the revisor decides to reveal everything to the press. He writes a letter and gives it to the postmaster to mail. The postmaster of course opens the letter, reads it, panics, swallows it whole, and proceeds to have a meltdown, whereupon the other characters painstakingly draw the contents of the letter out of him. The last words of the work, uttered by the postmaster, quoting the revisor’s letter, are (approximately): “when the actions of these officials are revealed, they will be done for.” The words are disproportionately powerful within the lightly comic piece, and feel like the wishful thinking of many people today in the face of so many corrupt and inhumane government officials to the south, to the east, to the west, and right here at home.
Indeed the entire work brings to mind Noam Chomsky’s comments on the Trump administration, that we are being distracted by the oftentimes entertaining but disturbing shit-show we see in the daily news, in order to keep the real horrors off the radar. Here’s hoping that eventually, like the petty bureaucrats at “the complex,” those who abuse their power will eventually be done for, the memory of their actions fading into an irritating and troubled static.
Revisor is at Théâtre Maisonneuve 3, 4, 5, 6 April at 8pm. Tickets here.