If you have a hankering for intelligent physical comedy and can spare 50 minutes and six bucks, it's well worth an early evening's drive to Tremont to see Terence Cranendonk's inspired one-man adaptation of Gogol's "The Inspector General", "I Dreamed of Rats." The performance is a finely crafted miniature -- spare, exquisitely precise, and consistently amusing -- and is presented in one of the better small performance spaces in town, at Tremont's historic Pilgrim Congregational Church, under the joint auspices of The New World Performance Laboratory and Theatre Labyrinth, two of Cleveland's experimental theatre companies.
Don't let the needlessly depressing title or the "experimental" label dissuade you. Cranendonk's work with Cleveland Public Theatre and the Performance Laboratory has established him as one of Cleveland's most consistently entertaining actors. He's also a playwright to watch, because his adaptation of Gogol's comic-paranoid masterpiece is extremely clever -- it's subtle and layered, yet always easy to follow.
Gogol's large-cast comedy is about a 19th century provincial Russian town that is turned upside down by the arrival of a feared "Inspector General", rumored to be traveling incognito from Moscow. Town officials are gripped by a combination of greed and fear: they seesaw between dreams of glorious promotions and nightmares of reprisals for their stupidity and corruption. When a young stranger appears, they fall over themselves to ensure his comfort, offering bribes with a wink. The joke is, of course, that it's a farcical case of mistaken identity -- the official is actually a clueless young wastrel who makes them laughing-stocks.
Where some adaptations focus on the comic plight of the stranger -- the 1950's Danny Kaye musical version may be familiar to many -- Cranendonk's take is to make the town mayor the protagonist. The piece becomes a comically sinister exploration of a man gripped by the fever of self-importance, who endlessly rehearses the best ways to flatter, obsessed with his image and how he is received.
Cranendonk is a formidable physical comedian, and his work with simple props is nothing short of dazzling -- a coat, hat, and red scarf become the "honored guest", handled with such precision that they actually seem to gain a personality. He morphs between a glittery-eyed malice to a pitiable Uriah Heep-like worry. His lean body and face seem to change shape with each change of mood -- contorting, stiffening, expanding. You can almost feel the pain of his character's ulcer attacks. With his center-parted hair, bow tie, and boyish countenance, he looks a little like an overgrown Alfalfa who has become unaccountably infected with moral corruption.
Like much of the Performance Laboratory's signature work, Cranendonk's performance is always knowingly self-conscious and at the slightest distance: the character is being presented and embodied for us in an actorly exploration. For connoisseurs of performance, it's full of little surprises and pleasures. For a general audience looking for a brief hour's entertainment satisfaction, it also delivers.