2/14/2020        UNNECESSARY FARCE                              CenterStage North



(Bias Alert:  I have worked with CenterStage North and may do so again someday.  I have also worked with many actors in this cast and tend to view their work through approval-tinted glasses.)


Farce, with all its in-your-face slapstick, silliness, bawdiness, and rowdiness, can paradoxically be a very delicate creature.  Let the pace lag, let the contrivances show, let the audience “take a breather” to actually think about what’s really going on, and the whole thing can whither and die, landing with the elegance of a fart at a funeral.


CenterStage North’s production of Paul Slade Smith’s Unnecessary Farce comes dangerously close to that “wither and die” point.  Fortunately, its cast create such indelible characters, and builds enough momentum that it (eventually) lands on its feet, shaky, but unbroken/unbowed.


This is one of those “go-to” pieces so beloved of regional and non-professional theatres – a small cast single set farce of epic door-slamming potential that puts eccentric characters in absurd situations and lets the desperation fly.  It is a consistent audience-pleaser, and last night’s opening performance seemed to delight a friendly near-sold-out crowd (myself included).  Its two-bedroom set is a perfect fit for the Art Place’s wide-and-shallow playing area, and the laughs (eventually) come fast enough to send everyone out with a smile (and an odd hankering for donuts).

Eric and Billie are big-town/small-city cops on a “special mission” to video-tape the mayor (perhaps) confessing to a major embezzlement scheme.  Since neither are the sharpest tools coming from the police academy roster, things go very wrong very quickly.  Before all is said and done, trousers fall, blouses fly, characters are bound and gagged and handcuffed and stuffed into closets, doors come alive, and the Scottish Mafia (aka the “Clan with a C not a K”) threaten all with imminent gunfire and bagpiping.


There are so many story elements here that really appealed to my sense of the absurd – a hit man who insists on donning kilt-and-plaid and “playing a wee tune” prior to “fulfilling a contract,” a mayor whose cluelessness may be honest and ingenuous at the same time, a mayor’s wife who keeps losing her husband, an impenetrable Scottish accent that only one other character can … well, penetrate, a security guard who fears his own shadow, a cop with a phobia about guns and the dark and enclosed spaces and {too much to list}, a corrupt city government that makes Tammany Hall seem like a Quilting Club, and, of course, all those doors that take on minds of their own,


You see, the set (a beautiful construct by Jeff Costello) is two motel rooms that mirror each other, each equipped with a hall door, a bathroom door, a closet door, and a double door connecting the rooms (yes, the doors outnumber the cast – which is as it should be).  The set dressings perfectly catch that assembly-line blandness we all expect from our motels.  Okay, some of the doors may be too close together to make a lovely Act II piece of business involving a bound and gagged Billie really soar, and maybe some supposedly locked doors accidently spring open at the wrong time (logistical details that will probably be ironed out as the run continues), but it all looks convincing and even a little elegant. Costumes, including a ridiculously high Scottish Shako and a ridiculously red kilt, not to mention trousers and blouses that breeze on and off with every shift in the breezy plot contribute to the lovely isn’t-this-the-silliest-thing-ever machinations of the characters’ libidos and idiosyncrasies.


And it is the cast who make this puppy bark.  Freddy Lynn Wilson and Katharina Fox give Eric and Billie a staggering incompetence that makes their blundering luck a true joy.  Julie Turner gives the shy (but randy) accountant a touching vulnerability and earnestness.  Jerry Jobe gives his usual stand-out performance as Agent Frank, the security guard with the core of quivering marshmallow.  Real-life husband and wife Steve Pryor and Diane Dicker make Mr. and Mrs. Mayor adorably valentine-ish even as the cracks of dysfunction gradually appear.  And Neil Ramsey is a Gaelic hoot as the Hit Man with the brogue and the bagpipes.


Okay, I may have had some problems with the Act I pacing, which was stingier-than-Scrooge with the laughs, giving us far too much time to wonder how two such incompetents ever became cops, why the “hidden camera” is too large to be missed by anyone, why a security guard is so timid, why Eric uses the hall door to travel from room to room when the (supposedly locked) connecting door is ajar etc etc etc.  Bui in Act II, when all the exposition is said and done, the timing picks up, the contrivances retreat to mere annoyances, and laughs cone fastlier and furiouslier than a Black Friday crowd.  Director Julia Taliaferro’s blocking makes the hilarious most of an acrobatic “Mexican Standoff” scene.  Clever broguish wordplay seems to be the order of the day, and even the lamest of puns lands with perfect three-point precision.


So, when all is said and done, Unnecessary Farce proved to be necessary anodyne to a lonely Valentine’s Day evening, putting a smile on my face, a song in my heart, and a (well more than “a”) donut in my belly.  Now, if the set crew can actually calm the living daylights out of those apparently self-aware doors, I think CenterStage North will have a Scottish hit on its hands!  It may nae be the best ye’ve ever seen, ach it nae be the worst!


     -- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com    @bk_rudy     #csnUnnecessaryFarce)

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