Subterfuge and farce in Harper Joy’s “The Government Inspector”

Nate Lessler

A half-painted, cartoon-like set of a town in Czarist Russia filled the Alexander Stage in Harper Joy Theatre. To the far side of the stage was a costume rack full of fat suits. A startled stagehand, alongside senior and set designer Devin Petersen, clean up broken glass from a lamp’s loosely-fitted light bulb. Meanwhile, one cast member danced down the aisle in a fat suit, prompting a crew member to joke about making a viral video of the dancing to advertise the show.

The show in question is “The Government Inspector,” Harper Joy Theatre’s first production of the fall, which runs from October 21-24. The eccentric costumes, high-energy atmosphere and focused but humorous attitudes of the cast and crew match the farcical nature of the play.

Photo Credit: Kendra Klag

Originally written in 1836 by Russian playwright Nikolai Gogol, “The Government Inspector” tells the story of a small and corrupt town that mistakes a poor man as a government inspector. The result is pure farce as the entire town works together to bribe and flatter the confused man.

Since it was first written almost two centuries ago, the play has since been translated and adapted numerous times.  Director Nancy Simon chose to use a 2008 adaptation by the American theater and television writer Jeffrey Hatcher. Simon, who was familiar with Hatcher’s work, decided to use this adaptation both for fun and in order to train students in farce.

“One of the things [the theater department] has been thinking is that we needed to do a farce because it is a particular type of training for our students,” said Simon. “I thought [Hatcher’s adaptation] was absolutely hilarious and [would be] a good show for us to open the season with.”

With its high energy, large cast, and farcical plot, the show promises to be a crowd-pleaser.

“It has a lot of roles in it and it’s a good show for family weekend . . . it’s like a Marx Brothers movie or a Bugs Bunny cartoon,” she said.

While the show is a farce at heart, it also satirizes contemporary American politics. At one point a character states, “You can’t fire a school teacher. Have you ever seen a teacher’s contract? It’s impossible!” This line could easily be interpreted as a criticism of how teacher unions and tenure have slowed education reform in the United States by making it next to impossible to fire bad teachers.

Simon noted that while the plot of the show is timeless, its meaning and critique of society has changed over time.

“[The original version] makes fun of the Russian bureaucracy, but Jeffrey Hatcher’s version . . . makes fun of politics as it exists in America [today],” said Simon. “It [depicts]  all of the subterfuge and deceit and play-acting that goes on [within politics], and the idea that everything is done to be elected, not in terms of what is needed by the country . . . and I think that’s much more prevalent for us than the repression of the czar, which was a big theme when it was originally done.”

Other than giving audiences satirical and farcical entertainment, the show has also provided some unique opportunities for students. Senior Raisa Stebbins and Peterson, both theater majors, are acting as designers for the production of the show, with Stebbins as lighting designer and Peterson as set designer.

Peterson expressed his excitement about designing for the production.

“It’s been an amazing experience . . . being able to design for a full production like this with a full budget because you don’t generally get those opportunities as a scenic designer to actually see your work created [due to budgetary concerns],” Peterson said.

According to Peterson, the inspiration for the set design came from Simon’s initial conversation with him in which she explained that the play was going to be very much like a “Tom and Jerry” sketch.

“It’s not a highly realistic set, and the way in which we created the walls and the look is very cartoonish,” said Peterson. “Most of it is painted on flat surfaces, which is sort of unusual for the productions we do here.”

However, Petersen felt confident that everything would come together by opening night.

Cast member sophomore Jeremy Howell expressed that he felt the set and other technical elements coming together would help improve the performances.

“I feel like with the lights and the costumes and when everyone has fake beards: I don’t usually believe in that kind of stuff, I think that you should be able to [perform fully] without the costumes and set: but I feel that for this show [those elements] will help us live the play with more truth,” said Howell.

“The Government Inspector” opens on Oct. 21 and runs through Oct. 24. Tickets are $12 for adults and $8 for students. Season passes for students are free. Tickets are available in the lobby of Harper Joy Theatre, until they are sold out.