‘The Government Inspector’ brings the laughs and the message

Lansing Community College’s production of “The Government Inspector” now running at Dart Auditorium may be set in 1836 Russia, but the themes and foibles regarding government corruption resonate as much as any dystopian future fiction. Why look to the future for despair when you can look to the past?

In a small Russian town, a penniless former government clerk on the verge of suicide Ivan Hlestekov (Connor Kelly) is mistaken by local authorities for a government inspector. Before he can pull the trigger, Ivan is bribed, wined and dined by the mayor (Jesse Frawley) and his band of cronies in exchange for what they think will be his favorable audit of their town’s facilities.

Mary Matzke directs this dark satire originally written by Nikolai Gogol as a breakneck farce. Recently adapted by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, “The Government Inspector” maintains all of the cynicism and bleakness expected from Russian fiction without the old-world language. More importantly, actors speak as themselves instead of juggling fake Russian accents to muddy the dialogue.

Kelly is perfect as a man teetering on the verge of suicide and sanity, paranoid that the mayor is coming to arrest him before toying with his newly discovered power. He’s balanced by Todd Heywood as Ivan’s manservant Osip. Heywood’s deadpan asides to the audience are razor sharp, made even more authentic by his shaved bald head and mutton chops. Both play well off of Frawley whose performance of the pompous mayor only occasionally references our current commander in chief.

The rest of the cast, including Nicole May, Nicole Yabs, Maria McCarthy, Quinn Kelly and Jason Durr, play an assortment of eccentric locals, each more clueless and vain as the next.

While there are some strong individual character moments, the best bits involve the entire ensemble working as one unit. When Ivan drunkenly dominates the mayor’s house party, he manipulates the room like a magician, twisting his hands and shouting while people collapse and cower on command. The timing and movement are as tightly choreographed as a dance.

Strong production elements like Bart Bauer’s set design, Chelle Peterson’s costume design and props designed by Melody Teodoro-Kurtis and Ray Kurtis give the entire production a feel of ornate grandeur and authenticity. From the layered coats to the bronze peacocks guarding the fireplace, the space feels opulent while giving the cast lots of room to move.

At its best, the show is naughty, irreverent and extremely dark. Matzke encourages the cast to lean into all of those dirty elements. But her choice to have the cast play the text as a broad farce complete with manic running around the stage often undercuts the darkness turning the end of the show into a Marx Brothers style romp instead of letting the dialogue do the work.

Still, for a show that satirized the corruption that comes from unchecked power and zero accountability, “The Government Inspector” is quite entertaining. In a way, it’s a warning of what’s to come, so you might as well enjoy the ride.

“The Government Inspector” Lansing Community College 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 10-Saturday, Nov. 11; 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 12 $15/$10 seniors, LCC faculty and staff /$5 students Dart Auditorium 500 N. Capital Ave., Lansing (517) 483-1488, lcc.edu/cma/events/