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Nikolai Gogol’s comic novel Dead Souls is set in czarist Russia at a time when a landowner’s wealth was determined by the number of his serfs. Gogol’s protagonist, Chichikov, figures he can exploit a census flaw that says people aren’t legally considered dead until the next tally is taken by cornering the market on dead serfs. Once he’s amassed a few hundred, paying other landowners a pittance for something they regard as having no real value, he is—at least on paper—the richest guy around. Until the chief prosecutor gets wind of his scheme. Sounds like a joke that ought to go down decently in a time of dot-com collapses and evaporating wealth, no? The last time Dead Souls received a theatrical airing in D.C. (in Russian, by Moscow’s Meyerhold Arts Center in an adaptation called A Hotel Room in the Town of NN), the production was determinedly minimalist. Ninety viewers squeezed into a tiny setting built in the middle of the Kennedy Center Opera House stage, after which the doors slammed shut, locking everyone into a fast-paced, nearly wordless evening about the scam. Now D.C.’s own Stanislavsky Theater Studio, using a theatrical version by Mikhail Bulgakov as its springboard, has tackled the story in more ornate, and considerably more labored, fashion. The movement-oriented troupe has erected an elaborate multilevel setting at the Church Street Theater, and director Andrei Malaev-Babel has set a 14-member cast attired in greens, salmons, and purples to strutting, careening, sliding, dancing, and roughhousing all over it. The effect is more frenetic than funny, but there’s a certain visual flair to the way Malaev-Babel keeps showcasing his dead souls in boxed clusters, crafting colorful stage pictures. Jonathan Leveck makes Chichikov a pleasantly nervous scammer. Alas, he’s surrounded by an energetic but—as has often been the case with Stanislavsky—largely ineffective supporting cast. One actor spends the entire evening bellowing lines as if sheer volume could create character, another adopts a silly walk, and a third sports outlandish sideburns that pretty much act him off the stage, all of which gets tiresome pretty quickly. The problem is chiefly that the script is so much more verbal than most of what the company has produced, and language is not one of the company’s strong points. And the mounting, which does not feature Paata Tsikurishvili, the company’s artistic director and star, sorely misses his strong central presence.—Bob Mondello