Political corruption in Russia was a hot enough topic more than 180 years ago when novelist Nikolai Gogol wrote The Government Inspector. The satirical play about greed, stupidity and general doofishness has stood the test of time, inspiring operas, movies and even an episode of Fawlty Towers.
"It’s definitely the same genre of people who sort of wish they were more than what they actually are, and the things they do and the way they get in trouble doing those things. Trying to be something more than they are," says Philip Hays, who is directing the production for Classical Theatre Company. "We see it in the world today. We try to be something special."
Both the John Cleese vehicle and Gogol's script rely on mistaken identity when a mysterious guest is thought to be a visiting inspector.
"Fawlty Towers is a perfect touchstone. We also talk about Monty Python, serious silliness, for this piece," says Hays. "It’s very absurd in the sense that it’s fast and full of characters who are a little bit larger than life but grounded with real political or social problems. You get the best of both worlds, the cartoonish silly and the real."
The script also has been streamlined for modern audiences with an adaptation by Hays. "Not only are we doing standard American accents but we’ve updated the time period in which the play is set to late '70s Russia," says Hays, who has taken a page from Vsevolod Meyerhold's 1926 production for the set design, brought to life by scenic designer Ryan McGettigan.
"Meyerhold famously sort of took the play out of its more realistic roots and shifted it into something more pernicious and elastically absurd. He’s famous for having his production set in a room with just a row of doors, and we’ve taken a little bit of inspiration from that to highlight the farcical nature," says Hays. "We've gone all out with as many doors as possible, plenty of surprises, cryptic entrances and exits."
Moving in and out of those doors are Classical regulars Brittny Bush and Lindsay Ehrhardt, returning artists Kregg Dailey and Matthew Keenan (who flies in once a year from Washington, D.C.), as well as local mainstays Tom Long, Dain Geist and Elizabeth Marshall Black. Rounding out the cast are Casey Magin, Benito Vasquez, Bonnie Langthorn, Xzavien Hollins and Jacob Mangum.
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Classical Theatre's video of the first read-through shows that Hays's goal of keeping the script funny by punching up the humor and modernizing the language seems to be working, with the actors breaking out into giggles. "I think obviously it deals with the darker themes of government corruption and compulsive lying, which has resonance today. But it’s all in the spirit and tradition, of humor and fun. Which makes it funny," says Hays.
"It’s an interesting case because none of the characters — except for maybe one or two — none of the characters are particularly good," says Hays. "They will stop at nothing to get what they want. There’s also a sort of innocence as they do that and they stumble through the problems. It’s also endearing. None of them are good but all of them are, in a strange way, charming."
Performances of The Government Inspector are 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and April 18 and 23, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, April 13-29, Chelsea Market Theatre, 4617 Montrose, 713-963-9665, classicaltheatre.org, $10 to $25.