At the Colorado Shakespeare Festival — at 54, the second-oldest Bard fest in the nation — the marquee event this summer will be a cross-cultural presentation of Nikolai Gogol's 1842 political satire, "The Inspector General."
But the most important person in the rehearsal room is not the boss, producing artistic director Philip C. Sneed. Or Efim Zvenyatsky, the production's visiting Russian director.
It's the translator, Julia Polshina.
"She's the only one who really knows what everyone is saying," said actor Stephen Weitz. To which castmate Mark Rubald adds, with a laugh, "Yes, we trust Julia to tell us what Efim is saying, . . . but even so, we don't know that's what he'sreallysaying."
Polshina is taking her responsibility in stride, despite a constant bombardment for two-way interpretation.
"I am usually a reasonable person," she says, to the quick clarification of a team member: "No, she is an unusually reasonable person."
"The Inspector General" is already an unusual creative undertaking for Colorado Shakespeare's 28 American actors, who will present their take on a political satire that Gogol described as his own "comedy of errors." It's about a corrupt mayor who, after years of bamboozling and shakedowns, is brought down in humiliation.
Its cast includes a mix of high- profile Denver and Boulder actors, including Lanna Joffrey and Erik Sandvold from the Denver Center. Zvenyatsky is producer and director at the Maxim Gorky Theatre in Vladivostok. His creative team includes eight members of his Russian company.
"This is a rare opportunity to see a very funny and popular foreign classic created in part by artists from that culture, which almost never happens," Sneed said. "We do French plays, we do Spanish plays, we do Chinese plays, but we almost never do them with artists from that culture. Usually you'd have to travel to Russia to get this experience."
Sneed and Zvenyatsky have been sharing works with their respective audiences 5,000 miles apart for 17 years, long before Sneed took over Colorado Shakespeare in 2007. But this will be a first for Boulder audiences.
Why do they do it?
"Because we should communicate more," says Zvenyatsky, who, ironically, can only communicate with his cast through his translator, Polshina.
"We are still very much like extraterrestrials in relation to each other, and we still do not know a lot of important things about each other. Most of us do not know much about real art in the United States or in Russia. We still are eating our hamburgers and popcorn, and that's that. We probably do not think enough about what it means to be human."
The play opens July 8, but for the July 15-16 performances only, the Americans will be joined on stage by four Russian actors. The Russians will assume four roles and speak their lines in Russian, while their American counterparts will repeat their lines in English.
For the actors, the thrill is being exposed to a new way of working. "We live in a country where, at least in the mainstream commercial theater, the process is pretty universally the same no matter whatever theater you go to," said Weitz, who plays Khlestakov — one of the roles that will be shared for the bilingual performances. "I think it's a great lesson for actors to give over to something foreign, and by that I don't mean nationality, I mean process."
A different process
For Zvenyatsky, working in America always comes as a shocking reminder of the disparity on the value of creating art in the two countries. In Russia, Zvenyatsky will typically rehearse a play for six months, much of that time sitting around a table talking about meaning and subtext. Once a play is ready, it goes into a rotation and can be performed for years. In Boulder, Zvenyatsky has only a few weeks to bridge the cultural divide, conquer the language barrier and establish an authentic Russian aesthetic — with American actors who are all simultaneously rehearsing for other plays in the festival season.
Weitz said the dialogue was very one-way at first, but it didn't take long to read the director's body language, if not lips. "You can just tell by the look on his face whether he is pleased or not."
To Rubald, who plays a school superintendent, the fun comes from the opportunity to perform in a beloved Russian jewel that is unknown to us.
"This play has a relevance and a resonance with its culture in the way that we have for 'Our Town' or 'A Christmas Carol,' " said Rubald. He finds it fascinating that Feodor Dostoyevsky himself appeared in a production of "The Inspector General," playing the Postmaster. "It seems amazing that this was seen as such a profound a piece of theater that this great social-political writer would want to be in it," Rubald said. "I mean, we would never see Cornel West in a Sarah Ruhl play. It just doesn't happen."
"Russian bribes are bigger"
But contemporary American audiences might be surprised how well they know the story of "The Inspector General," Zvenyatsky said.
"Corruption and greed and bribery exist in Russia and the U.S. and all over the world," he said. The only difference — "Russian bribes are bigger."
Anyone who has charted the formation and rise of the Tea Party will get it, Sneed added. "The idea that government is inherently ineffectual, if not downright corrupt, is a recurring theme throughout history," he said. "But since 2008, we've seen this very divisive debate about what the role of government is, and one side that believes governments are by their nature incompetent. Well . . . this play sort of proves that, in a way."
Zvenyatsky has found that actors in Russia and America are essentially the same. "There is a common language they all speak," he said. "What I do not like, is that there is no money in the theater in the United States, unfortunately."
And in Boulder, there is a fixed eye on the bottom line. Sneed broke even last year, but after a two-year, $1 million revenue free fall. Also on the festival bill: "Romeo and Juliet," "The Comedy of Errors" and Antoine de Saint-Exupery's children's novel, "The Little Prince," which opened the season Saturday.
This marks the first time since 1972 the festival hasn't offered at least three Shakespeare titles.
So will Gogol sell better than Shake- speare?
"Believe me, if anyone has a crystal ball that will predict what will sell, they should let us know," Sneed said. "And they should let Broadway know, because 70 percent of Broadway productions lose money."