By Kristina Markulin
After a faculty shake-up canceled the production “God’s Country,” the director of last semester’s production of “Into the Woods,” Russ Borski, stepped up to fill the void. Despite the late notice, he was up for the challenge.
He decided on “The Real Inspector Hound,” written by Tom Stoppard. The one-act play focuses around two theatre critics watching and reviewing a whodunit murder mystery. The audience watches this play within a play and witnesses all the twists and turns along with the critics, as the two get swept up into the murder mystery themselves.
“Cleveland is very gray during January and February, and I thought a comedy would be really good, and absurdist comedy at this point in life is also very good,” Borski said. “It’s fun to perform, it’s fun to work on, it’s fun to learn, and hopefully it will be fun to see.”
Borski expressed the difficulty of pulling off such a play, especially with thick British and cockney accents. Navigating the script and effectively communicating the story without losing the audience has been a challenge, but one he is confident his cast can accomplish. Besides, he believes that this production will be a good exercise in melodrama, a technique popular before his students’ time. To help prepare his students, he showed them the 1967 comedy “Enter Laughing,” which features a similar premise as “Hound” and stands as a good exposure to comedic melodrama.
“It’s fun exploring it, and comedically, it’s very fun exploring that you don’t stand with a tennis racket like this,” he said, as he dropped his arm straight to his side. “You stand in a pose, facing front and never turning your back to the audience. So, we’re exploring all of that stuff.”
Nailing the comedy is also going to be a challenge, he admits.
“Doing a death scene and doing a tragedy in drama is actually so much easier to do than comedy,” he lamented. “You know, how many things are actually, truly funny?”
“Hound” is overall a smaller production than last semester’s “Into the Woods”. Not only is it an act shorter, but it’s also a smaller cast, eight compared to 24. The sets are smaller too, with “Hound” having an interior box set that pushes into the crowd, blending the audience and the action on stage. Whereas “Into the Woods” was a large, grand production complete with music, “The Real Inspector Hound” will be a more intimate experience.
Even though he is directing “The Real Inspector Hound,” Borski is a designer at heart. He’s the lead faculty designer in the Cleveland State University Department of Theatre and Dance and designs everything from sets to lights to costumes. Even his office reflects this, filled to the ceiling with an eclectic collection of photos, books and theatre props that reflect the personality of the man who curated them.
Borski is quite intimate with the play. He was a designer on a Chicago-based production in his youth. But to create an experience unique to the Outcalt Theatre, he started by reading the script 30 times. He began to visualize how the ensemble would interact with each other, how the set would look and the relationship between the audience, the critics, and the murder mystery.
As lead faculty designer, he has a hand in every production the Department of Theatre and Dance puts on in one way or another. The job requires lots of multitasking.
“We have a group of 10; Cleveland Playhouse has a group of 90. And yet we’re working in the same spaces, and we’re trying to make the same posters and advertisements. We’re trying to create productions that hold up,” he said. “So, every single faculty and staff in this department are doing a lot of different things at any given time.”
Despite the challenges, Borski is confident in his cast and crew. He worked with many of them on “Into the Woods,” and newcomers are allowed a space to freely explore their ideas and abilities in a focused environment.
“I think by investing in the work is how you create trust. They see what is being done, and they want to do their work the same way they see the work being done,” he said.
“The Real Inspector Hound” will be playing from Feb. 27 to March 8 on Thursdays through Sundays, with a total of eight performances. Sunday performances are at 2 p.m., while Thursday through Saturday performances are at 7:30 p.m. There’s also an ASL performance on Thursday, March 5. Tickets with a student ID are $5, while non-student tickets range from $5 to $15.