Now for something completely different…

Allen Community College presents "The Inspector General" through Saturday. It's a play like no other because of the coronavirus pandemic, and is stunningly staged in a surprising and socially distant way. If only 2020 could get its act together so effectively.

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October 8, 2020 - 10:12 AM

Allen Community College Theatre Department adapts to the coronavirus pandemic by using masked, mute characters and separate voice actors. Physical actors, in front from left, are Bryce Nathaniel, Krais Baker and Jonathan Wall. Voice actors, in back include Lexie Vega (partially hidden), Jake Andersen, Rachel Shaffer, Parker Smith (partially hidden) and River Hess (not pictured). Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

A different kind of time requires a different kind of play.

And Allen Community College Theatre Department’s version of “The Inspector General” is delightfully different, at any time.

The coronavirus pandemic put the kibosh on most types of live entertainment. Performers had to get creative and many adapted by moving their art online, through livestreaming or Zoom or other virtual platforms.

But ACC’s new theater director Trevor Belt wanted to find a way to bring live performances back to the stage, as safely as possible. It was a daunting challenge for his ACC debut, at which Belt cleared impossible hurdles including how to stage a production while requiring actors to socially distance and wear face masks.

Is it possible to social distance a play, not just the audience but the cast? And how can actors perform with masks covering half their faces?

The result is a clever combination that hearkens back to earlier eras, part old-fashioned radio show, part pantomime, part melodrama and all hilarious.

Most cast members don’t speak a word, letting their exaggerated body movements do the talking.

The dialogue is left to five voice actors, all of whom should be quite familiar to local theater enthusiasts, including Iolans River Hess, Lexi Vega, Jake Andersen, Rachel Shaffer and Parker Smith, all Iolans, who keep to the back of the stage, separated by thick wood walls. They quickly shift from role to role, modifying the sound to fit each character.

The 10 physical actors also portray multiple characters.

It’s all about timing, as each character is technically performed by two people at the same time.

It’s also a situation where just about everything could go wrong. But with such a talented group of actors, it all comes off without a hitch.

The cast speculates that a well-dressed new arrival is an inspector in disguise. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register
Carolyn Appleton plays a boozy postmaster. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register
Josiah LaRue delivers a standout performance as a gambling census taker mistaken for an inspector. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register
River Hess of Iola, left, and Blake Hess of Garnett team up to play a character. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register
4 photos

The play will be performed at 7:30 p.m. at the Bowlus Fine Arts Center. Tonight’s performance is reserved for ACC students, staff and faculty. The general public can attend Friday and Saturday.

All tickets must be purchased in advance, as seating is limited because of coronavirus restrictions. Families can sit together, with space between groups. 

The play will not be livestreamed or recorded, which means this weekend is your only chance to witness such a unique performance.

Get ready for something you’ve never seen before. And — if tickets are still available to purchase — you should.

“THE INSPECTOR General” is a modern adaptation of an 1836 Russian play about residents of a town preparing for a surprise visit from a government official. They mistake a census taker for the inspector, doing their best to woo him and hide their town’s faults.

The modern version is set in a small town in North Dakota.

It opens with an introduction to the townsfolk, and it does take a minute to adjust to the rapid-fire dialogue coming from the back of the stage and over-the-top physical action.

Mayor Anton Dumkovich, played with just the right amount of pompous prominence by Krais Baker of Yates Center and voiced by Parker, announces the town will expect a visit from an inspector. The town must clean up its act, and not just by hiding its physical flaws. 

The townsfolk themselves are a dysfunctional bunch, from the mayor’s flirtatious wife (physical actor Kaitlyn Hanks of Fort Scott) and daughter (Illiana Gallardo of Topeka) to the boozy postmaster (Carolyn Appleton of Iola).

Soon, a farmer and his wife arrive to tell everyone about a well-dressed government worker from Washington, D.C., who is staying at the local hotel. The lanky Maxwell Kays as the farmer evokes memories of the scarecrow from the “Wizard of Oz” with his “clueless country bumpkin” performance. Appleton plays his ditzy wife, who oozes a kind of “Desperate Housewives: Redneck Edition” sensuality.

The scene shifts to the Lights Out Inn, where Blake Hess plays Ozzie, a desperate con man looking for a way out of town with his partner, census taker Alexander Khlestakov. 

Alexander, a standout performance by Josiah LaRue of Fort Scott and voiced in perfect unison by Andersen, has blown all their money gambling and is under siege by the hotel staff, with the understated Jonathan Wall as a server (and multiple other small but hilarious roles).

Before Alexander can skip out on his bill, the mayor arrives to curry favor with the man he believes to be an inspector. The mayor discovers the “inspector” is open to a bribe, or, as Alexander describes it, “a loan.”

Alexander soon realizes he can con the whole town. Before long, everyone is throwing bribes, er, loans, at him.

LaRue and Andersen make a formidable acting duo, with LaRue’s wild but controlled movement complimented by Andersen’s deeply serious voice.

The two unrelated Hesses (physical actor Blake and voice actor River) deliver a lyrical performance in the smaller role. Blake extends his arms and legs like a dancer, following the movements through to the end with a subtle sophistication. 

After a brief intermission, Act 2 begins with a parade of townsfolk, eager to impress (and pay off) the inspector. 

School superintendent Lucy Lightfeather, played with Gumby-like flexibility by JieJie Means of Iola, is charmed by the inspector.

Judge Frederick P. Frederick shows he can be flexible, too, with the law. Physical actor Bryce Nathaniel of Colony brings an earnest but sarcastic seriousness to the role.

The physical stunts are stunning. Characters jump on and off boxes. Their arms and legs flail about as they run and jump across the stage. One character even does a cartwheel.

Sound effects and props are used sparingly and appropriately, giving the actors enough flexibility to tell the story with their bodies.

The voice talents can’t be ignored, either. Hess excels with a manic energy to match the anxious characters who cavort on stage. Vega sounds as if she grew up in Fargo, dontcha know. Andersen’s vocal versatility impresses. Shaffer takes control of each role she’s handed. And Smith knows how to give his characters just the right inflection to portray their self-righteous ignorance.

Belt and the cast and crew have pulled off a stunning achievement.

If only 2020 could get its act together so effectively.

Click here to purchase photos from the play.

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