When “The Government Inspector,” by Nikolai Gogol, premiered in Russia in 1836, it was not well received. The press panned it, perhaps because even though the play utilized many theatrical conventions of the day, it used them in a way never seen before. According to Bruce Longworth, director of the production by Webster University's Conservatory of Theatre Arts, it wasn't only the critics who disliked the play.
“Gogol hated the first production—and the actors hated it,” Longworth said. “You've got to wonder if the actors didn't like it because it was new.”
The play centers around a small corrupt village in Russia that learns of an impending visit by a government inspector, who will arrive in disguise to investigate them. They react with fear and panic, and quickly assume a man staying the hotel, charging his lavish hotel bill to the crown, is the inspector. The man isn't the inspector, of course, but merely a foppish civil servant. What follows is a series of improbable events as the impostor plays his new role to maximum humorous effect.
The translation, by Jeffrey Hatcher, was first staged at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in 2008, and subsequently at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. “It's very faithful to the spirit of the original, but it's updated so it translates to the American mouth,” Longworth said. “What I love about the translation is it's very funny and it's a wonderful character study.”
Plays about government corruption tend to remain topical hundreds of years later, and The Government Inspector is no exception. “It's still incredibly relevant,” Longworth said. “Turn on the evening news any night and you'll see aspects of the story.”
In order to tell the story in a distinct and creative way, Longworth has enlisted the help of movement teacher, Jeff Owada, who teaches the students during all four years of the acting program. “We're working very closely with Jeff on the play having a very special movement style,” Longworth said. “It's been great fun.”
Although the students are having fun with their roles and the production, working with two of their teachers adds an extra level of pressure. “It's been kind of hard,” Senior Alison Newman said. “Bruce and Jeff are both our teachers, so it's like being in class.” Newman plays the hospital director in the play.
Senior Greg Fink, who portrays the man who is mistaken for the inspector, is just enjoying the experience. “It's been a lot of fun," Fink said. “The script is hilarious. Bruce is great—the cast is great. Everyone was really well cast. Everyone has a little bit of their character in their personality.”
The play will be performed on a large and colorful stage, with three sets that revolve on a turntable that brings whichever set is needed to the front. “It's a set that does tricks, and it looks very Russian,” Longworth said. “It has an onion dome. It's a great springtime show and I'd like to have people come out and see it.”
What: “The Government Inspector,” by Nikolai Gogol, translated by Jeffrey Hatcher.
Where: Browning Mainstage, Loretto Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves
When: April 20-24, Thurs, Fri, Sat, 8pm; Sun, 2pm matinee only
Tickets: $12, $6 seniors and students. Call the Fine Arts Hotline at 968-7128 to purchase tickets.