Review: Revisor is thoughtful, imaginative entertainment

Rena Narumi and Jermaine Spivey in a scene from Revisor. Photo: Michael Slobodian

The laughing and weeping masks known as “sock and buskin” have symbolized comedy and tragedy since the Greeks. In Revisor, their newest collaboration, choreographer Crystal Pite and writer-actor Jonathon Young have combined the farcical and the serious in one sharply divergent show, lifting the curtain on the tears hiding behind the merriment.

In Betroffenheit, Pite and Young’s previous, international award-winning production, personal suffering and trauma provided the creative fuel. Revisor, based loosely on the Gogol play The Government Inspector, lacks Betroffenheit’s raw, breathtaking, gut-punch emotional impact. But if it misses that extraordinarily high artistic bar, Revisor still offers an hour and a quarter of thoughtful, imaginative entertainment.

Revisor presents two interpretative views of the same story. In the first, the dancers simply perform an especially madcap adaptation of Gogol’s play, about a lowly fonctionnaire who gets mistaken for a high-ranking government inspector by the denizens of a corrupt little backwater and their tinpot dictator of a leader. Here Pite, Young and the eight dancers of Kidd Pivot play strictly for yuks, lip-synching to the narrated text with cartoonish, exaggerated gestures that bloom into Pite’s signature swivelling, speed-shifting moves. The dancers have such a knack for matching their physicality to the actors’ voices — a Transylvanian accent here, a breathy, Marilyn Monroe giggle there — that you almost forget they aren’t speaking the dialogue themselves. Visually, the sets (Jay Gower Taylor) and costumes (Nancy Bryant) look like a Wes Anderson-meets-Monty Python fantasy, with brocade couches, looming armoires and gold braid galore. The jokes, based on convoluted bureaucratic and legal verbiage, certainly hit the mark with the public servants in the audience.

There’s an abrupt change in tone mid-piece (halfway through the same scene, in fact.) Pite and Young hit rewind and all of the action is repeated from the beginning. This time a narrator provides a play-by-play of the choreography, as the dancers — now in generic contemporary urban wear — go over their steps. The mood does an about-face too, from lighthearted slapstick to glowering intensity. An absurd stag-head costume from Part 1 turns into a menacing, primal solo for a dancer with racks of antlers for hands. The score (by Owen Belton, Alessandro Juliani and Meg Roe) shifts from comical oom-pah to industrial, where snippets of dialogue are looped and modulated to create complex rhythms and layered textures.

Revisor had its world premiere just last week in Pite’s hometown of Vancouver before immediately leaving on tour. So many new dance works suffer from a certain awkward over-eagerness and a desperate need of an edit. It’s a testament to Pite and Young’s perfectionism and patient investment in developing their ideas that Thursday’s first NAC performance already felt completely lived-in, tight, and organic.

Revisor continues at the NAC Friday and Saturday evenings.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.