Monday, May 9, 2011
Theater review: The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society Murder Mystery at Mesquite Arts Center
The play was meant to be nothing more than a time for non-stop laughter, and therefore none of the faults matter.
The title of Mesquite Arts Council's new play, The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen's Guild Dramatic Society – Murder at Checkmate Manor (playing in the Black Box Theatre at Mesquite Arts Center through May 14), should be a pretty good clue as to what type of show you are going to see, performed by Mesquite Arts Council Black Box MAC Actors. Shortening it to The Farndale play, it is English farce at its most classic. There were 10 Farndale plays written by David McGillivray and Walter Erlin, Jnr. The first was performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1976 and each one parodied different theatre genres, in this case the murder mystery.
Now this was by no means a thought-provoking play or even a "pay close attention to the details and try to figure out who's the murderer before its revealed" kind of show. Who done it became rather apparent in the first few minutes but that's not at all the point. Murder at Checkmate Manor was all about the fumbles and foibles of four English townswomen (and one man) as they attempted to perform all 14 roles of the play. All the farcical elements were in place – missed cues, costume and set malfunctions, lighthearted sexual innuendos, skipped pages and bad acting. If I could only have one sentence for my critique it would be I have not heard such uproarious laughter from an audience in quite some time. And by uproarious, I mean long and loud belly laughs amidst plenty of giggles and guffaws.
The synopsis of the play within the play really doesn't matter. It was all too fast-paced and silly to keep up with anyway. There were British phrases and products mentioned some might not be familiar with but who cared as the performance by this Dramatic Society was the real play. And it is with such a play that things can become a bit confusing. Being a play within a play – the English characters are badly acting out the mystery play – an audience member might think (as I believe a few behind me did) that the actual actors were awful. Ah contraire mon cher, that was not the case. These actors were good enough to portray bad actors trying to perform a bad play really well and ... well, hopefully you get the picture!
In keeping with the "bad theatre"concept, set design by Director Byron Holder was a simple drawing room with doors, exits, stairs, window and a kindergarten level landscape backdrop, all made to look as bad as I would have built it, being a terrible set crew person. All the typical lighting elements, designed by Chris Wyatt, were in place – lightening flashes, red back light for police car, lights out just before the murder, etc. Sound, designed by Lacy Price, was equally as "bad" and miscued and hilariously so (did miss the 13th bong of the clock though!).
Costumes by Christy Griser were a challenge as she dressed the five actors for fourteen distinctly different characters. The designs were all over the place, stylistically, but were well-thought out. If that weren't enough, she also costumed the two well-heeled townswomen who seated us and an intermission fashion show. Having designed props for many productions, I bow to PropsMaster Abel Casillas for keeping up with them all each performance.
As for the actors of The Farndale play, all I could say is that you wore me out. Those five were all good physical comedy actors without exception. They handled the falls, being dragged out the door, window "plummets," and all the bumps and thumps like troopers. The beauty of and success in this type of theatre happens in the clear delineation between the first and second play. The director has to guide the actors to play for reality and not for the comedy. In this particular play, the townswomen truly believe they are good and it's in the mishaps where the humor lies, not in all the roles they play. Under Holder's direction, some of the actors understood the difference and some did not.
Even knowing that Chris Wyatt's character was Gordon, the stage manager, filling in at the last minute, his role as the inspector was a little too monotone and he could have gone further towards the bumbling detective as that character is usually written. For most of the women, there was an easier distinction between the townswomen and all the characters they were playing. Sheresa Tuggle, as Thelma, the town's beauty pageant winner, played all the "blonde-brained" characters and one "granny" and did them all with aplomb and abandon.
Laura Jennings took the award for slapstick comedy with her many murdered roles, changing from nightgown mistress of the house to French maid, to equestrian-dressed horse women and on and on. Jennings took the art of the slow death to a new comedic high. She used all the old sight gags to hilarious advantage, including one item she never went onstage without (look for it!) As Mrs. Reece, her upper crust English and Cockney accent was presentable (as were most of the actors' accents).
I was thoroughly impressed with Jocelyn Everett's portrayal of Audrey and the perfect choices she made as to which role she was playing when. There were a few instances when I truly thought it was Everett herself going off script with laughter (along with Wyatt) and not Audrey, her character. It was that well done. On the flip side, Kimberly Anne Cooper was ill-directed and never developed her character, Felicity. This was what I meant about being tricky. Cooper only went for the comedy, playing a cross-eyed, bumbling person for the butler, Pawn, and all the other roles Felicity played. Each was way over the top, if that were possible, and her physicality was uncontrolled and uneven. We never saw the English townswoman underneath, attempting to play all the silly characters, and that was where the actual humor lay. Unfortunately, Cooper's choice was not interesting and quickly became annoying.
However, and I must say it again, with a play of this type, none of those faults mattered. The Farndale play, Murder at Checkmate Manor, was meant to be nothing more than a time for non-stop laughter and, even before the house lights went down, the Black Box MAC Actors accomplished that and more. Located in a beautifully remodeled Arts Center with a small but nice art gallery, it was a great place and wonderful evening to just sit back, laugh, turn to your friend to see them laughing, and then laugh some more! I never want to miss the chance to have fun at the theatre, and with this production, I invite you to do the same.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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