How does a 2012 Tony Award-winning regional theatre open up their newest season? Doing The Government Inspector is a great way to start.
As the Shakespeare Theatre Company prepared to open their first production of a Russian play, artistic director Michael Kahn enthusiastically shared the reasons for choosing Nikolai Gogol’s comic masterpiece.
“It’s very famous, a Russian classic. And it’s one of the funniest plays in the classical repertoire.”
Gogol was not the first to use a case of mistaken identity as fodder for comedy, but he added the story of small town politics and brought a biting, satirical element to the play.
Discovering just how engaging Gogol’s piece would be for an audience was really the key, said Kahn.
“Last year we had a reading of The Government Inspector during our ReDiscovery Series. Derek Smith and many of the current cast members were in the reading and I kept laughing, along with the audience.”
Kahn decided he had to do play at STC, the company’s first Russian play. He had the cast, set the schedule and only needed to decide which version of the satire to produce.
“We chose Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation, since it was faithful to the original while having American humor and timing. It made me laugh out loud.”
Kahn said Hatcher’s adaptation was economical and smart, whereas other versions were convoluted and darker. “I loved that it was fast and was built with wonderful comic timing. I could approach it as a contemporary comedy, but with the classical approach to the language.”
A prolific writer for the stage and screen, Jeffrey Hatcher has created adaptations for Henry James’ Turn of the Screw, and co-authored Tuesdays with Morrie with author Mitch Albom. His own plays include Scotland Road, Three Viewings, and Korczak’s Children. The Minnesota-based writer adapted his play, Compleat Female Stage Beauty, into the 2004 film “Stage Beauty.”
Hatcher first worked on his adaptation of The Government Inspector for the Guthrie Theatre in 2008.
“Joe Dowling at Guthrie wanted to do a new version of it; they had not done the play since 1973. Like a lot of foreign language plays, there were many translations of the Gogol, but not one that was ‘the’ funny one, one that worked on all levels.”
Thrilled to take on the challenge, Hatcher set to work. Since he does not read Russian, he began looking at extant versions of the play, to see where different translations agreed or disagreed.
“I tried to work primarily from a pretty basic translation so my own work was not clouded,” he said. “I was happily free from the responsibilities of mere translation.”
Hatcher equated his work on the play to someone restoring a valuable antique.
“It’s almost as if you are resurfacing an ornate nineteenth century bathtub, giving it a new sheen, but all the brass and foundry work is solid. It’s such a perfectly designed play. I made changes in the dialogue, on top of the superstructure.”
For the adaptation, Gogol’s plot remains the same: Officials in a small Russian village expect a visit from a government bureaucrat whom they fear will discover the true nature of the corrupt government. When the inspector arrives, they wine and dine him and treat him like royalty. The catch is the person they take as the government inspector is really just a well-dressed windbag who accepts the special treatment. A fraud, Hlestakov is just a minor official from St. Petersburg who has taken advantage of their fawning hospitality.
The universal appeal of Gogol’s creation is not lost on the director or the adapter for the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of The Government Inspector.
Kahn said Gogol was satirizing a provincial society, but all classics are about their own time yet remain relevant.
“The audience is going to see that small town politics and mendacity were the same in the eighteenth century as it is today.”
Hatcher said the specifics of Gogol’s provincial setting contribute to the play’s universality.
“It’s essentially Russian, set in a repressive regime, where anywhere but the two or three cosmopolitan cities are the backwoods. But this small town in Russia is really applicable to any small town in the world.”
That’s the paradox of piece, according to Hatcher.
“This play could be set in Oklahoma or in various other places. In every time period, there is a backwater town” or administration filled with corrupt officials. “I’m rather certain you could do The Government Inspector like ‘The Office,’ where the branch and staff were going to be inspected.”
The character of Hlestakov is everywhere, too, said Hatcher, comparing him to the comic film personas of Bob Hope or Woody Allen.
“They love food, drink, women, but they are the meek – the mouse of a guy who pretends to roar.”
Hlestakov is just such a character. He is the bragging liar and coward who is also fast on his feet.
“These guys are fun to watch when they’re lying,” said Hatcher.
Kahn felt that Derek Smith was born to play the title role.
Needless to say, Smith is not alone onstage. In fact, The Government Inspector on the Lansburgh Theatre stage boasts a veritable who’s who of local acting talent.
“The play has wonderful parts for actors and I have an amazing cast of Washington actors,” said Kahn.
The village government is lead by Rick Foucheux as the Mayor. The Postmaster, Doctor, Judge, and School Principal are played by Floyd King, Tom Story, David Sabin, and Craig Wallace. As two local landowners, Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky, Hugh Nees and Harry Winter appear. Nancy Robinette is Anna, the Mayor’s wife, while Claire Brownwell is daughter Marya.
Liam Craig is Hlestakov’s servant, Osip. Also in the cast are Travis Blumer (Pentelaeyev/Messenger), Sarah Marshall (Grusha/Innkeeper’s Wife/Corporal’s Widow), and Lawrence Redmond (Hospital Director/Chernyaeyev).
Additional events are offered throughout the run of The Government Inspector. On Sunday, September 23, join the STC’s artistic staff for Page and Stage, to discuss the production, from 5 to 6 pm in the Lansburgh Theatre lobby.
AsidesLIVE: The Government Inspector takes place from 10 am to 1 pm on Sunday, September 30 in the Forum of Sidney Harman Hall. AsidesLIVE will feature panel discussions with various scholars, including a conversation between Michael Kahn and Jeffrey Hatcher.
For information on these and other events, go to The Government Inspector and click “Additional Events.”