‘Farndale’ review: slight drag

Bag&Baggage Productions' cross-dressed Brit-com theater spoof offers low humor in high heels

The show begins before the show begins. As the audience gradually trickles in from the lobby and bar, a dumpy, worried looking, Chaplin-esque figure wanders the spare set, making adjustments to the chairs, side table, and other props. While audience members take their seats, some chatting with each other in the aisles, some don’t even notice a molding suddenly falling off a wall. The beleaguered little prop man frowns, and with help from some unwitting audience members, undertakes repairs. Then a rather ample — and amply bewigged and be-pearled dowager — appears, loudly handing out programs.

Norman Wilson, Patrick Spike, and Jeremy Sloan play Thelma Greenwood, Phoebe Reece, and Merdeces Blower in Bag&Baggage’s produc on of The Farndale Avenue… Murder at Checkmate Manor. Photo: Casey Campbell.

Welcome to Bag&Baggage Productions’ The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society’s Murder at Checkmate Manor, the farce-within-a-farce shambling and stumbling across the stage through October at Hillsburg’s, er, Hillsboro’s The Vault. Before the evening is done, audiences will suffer through faux French, egregious wordplay, spoonerisms, malfunctioning props, dysfunctional malaprops, blown cues, stilted acting, overacting, wandering facial hair makeup, spotlight hogging, backstage cattiness, a failed fashion show, karaoke, an invisible canine, cheesy strobe effects, and a not entirely Thrilling Michael Jackson flashback.

I hasten to add that the parade of ludicrous ineptitude is entirely intentional on Bag&Baggage’s part. One in a series of ten popular 1970s farces perpetrated by the British team of Walter Zerlin Jr. and David McGillivray that spoof earnest but hopelessly incompetent amateur theater companies, Farndale is a play that tries, and alas only occasionally succeeds, in making good comedy out of deliberately bad theater.

Topsy Turvy Theatre

Bag&Baggage produced another in the series, The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society’s Production of a Christmas Carol, at Hillsbottom’s now-shuttered Venetian Theatre in 2012, and certainly the smaller Vault more closely resembles the scale of actual community theater like that being spoofed here. And the new space’s expanded libations menu will no doubt prime the pump and lower the joke-appreciation threshold to the play’s level: this is very silly stuff that barely requires a first thought, much less any more. It therefore makes a mildly entertaining, family friendly fun fest that can appeal to audiences of all ages, sensibilities, and theater experience. It’s almost ideal for Halloween … and there is an all-Hallow’s Eve show.

Farndale’s theme of theater’s ups and downs seems fitting, as it arrives in the midst of a tumultuous nine-month period in which Bag&Baggage itself

• canceled a major spring production at the last minute when its venue owner abruptly announced a possible sale, which meant reaching out to patrons to explain and apologize;

• hurriedly moved another production to a library, completely rethinking the staging;

• plunged into an accelerated from-the-studs-up rebuild of an old bank vault into a modern black box theater, plus associated intense (and ultimately successful) fundraising to pay for it all;

moved into that fab new facility, and started designing, directing, and adjusting to a completely different kind of drama-making;

• staged yet another big, complex summer outdoor production that took it into almost entirely new territory;

• staged its first production in the new venue just a month before Farndale.

In both Vault shows so far, direction has felt tentative, with static moments perhaps related to the problem of making sure audiences on three sides — a different setting than the Venetian proscenium — can really catch the primary action. It’s like downsizing from a sprawling old multi-bedroom house into a sleek, spiffy futuristic new studio condo or tiny home. Even though the facilities are much better, it still takes some actual living in it to adjust to a new space.

But Farndale’s main drag is its script, some of whose broad humor — more Benny Hill than Dame Edna or Monty Python — may be lost on American audiences unfamiliar with British Pantomime (“Panto”), holiday shows put on by society ladies, and a cross dressing tradition that differs somewhat from, say, the one Milton Berle popularized on this side of the pond.

Yet while many of us Yanks have endured well-intentioned community or school theater productions in which the primary delight is giggling at what went wrong, how often can you laugh at what’s essentially the same joke? Brits apparently never tired of it, as the team was at work on yet another installment when barrister-turned-playwright Zerlin ascended to the great flyloft in the sky in 1980. For me, once was more than enough; too often, Farndale drags — in the wrong sense.

Queenly Quartet

That’s certainly not the fault of the exuberant cast: Patrick Spike as the Dramatic Guild’s bossy leader Mrs. Phoebe Reece, the one hawking programs and running, or trying to run, the show; Jeremy Sloan, especially as the tall, tennis-playing ingenue Mrs. Mercedes Blower; Norman Wilson, as the uptight Mrs. Thelma Greenwood; and especially Tyler Buswell, notably as the dastardly Pawn. All in drag, they slyly, occasionally hilariously portray numerous characters in their increasingly futile attempt to stage what’s essentially Agatha Christie’s murder mystery And Then There Were None.

Adding to the general confusion, that beset stage manager, Gordon (appropriately played by a female, a brilliant Arianne Jacques, in reverse drag), is forced to join the queens onstage when one of the troupe members is incapacitated in an offstage lighting fixture / costume sewing accident. They’re all really good at being really bad, pulling off peppy physical comedy despite high heels and low humor, their comically exaggerated expressions are delightfully visible in The Vault’s intimate confines. Here, the only mystery is how hilariously they’ll fail.

Wilson, Tyler Buswell as Pawn, Arianne Jacques as Gordon in “Farndale… Murder at Checkmate Manor.” Photo: Casey Campbell.

Spoiler: not enough. Although the car gets cranking before the show even starts, the engine never really turns over. Maybe in ‘70s Britain, men dressed as women delivering lame double entendres was enough to draw Big Yuks, but in 21st century Portland, we expect much more from our drag artists and comedians. After shows like Greater Tuna, or Noises Off, by another British playwright, Michael Frayn (coincidentally the very production B&B had to cancel when the rug and the rest of its home were yanked from beneath it last year), the standard for so-bad-it’s-good backstage-theater farce has vaulted much higher. Maybe Farndale’s co-creators just spread out the best gags over too many installments in the extended series.

Larded with obvious and overextended jokes, Farndale’s creaky script too often squanders comic momentum, a problem compounded on opening night by slight hesitations in dialogue and other comic intrusions. That chemistry that combusts into the rapid-fire repartee required in a show like this one usually takes several performances to fully ignite — especially when the actors, as here, haven’t been working together for awhile, unlike the usual lineup of company regulars in most B&B productions. I expect the pace has already picked up as the run proceeds.

Where the show succeeds — and it drew plenty of chortles if not guffaws on opening night — it’s in spite of the stale script, thanks especially to sharp (or actually, Coarse) acting, direction and improvisation. Many of my favorite moments were unscripted, and often unspoken ad libs or physical comedy, double takes, and other nonverbal humor concocted by director Scott Palmer, assistant director Cassie Greer, and troupe.

Any production faces unusual challenges because the essence of the show — it’s supposed to represent a cheap, even tawdry amateur production — militates against some of most obvious solutions, like smart lighting and better sets. Nevertheless, Melissa Heller’s spectacularly over-the-top costumes and diva-worthy makeup, and the irresistible actors’ enthusiastic efforts, are almost worth the ticket price, keeping a fitfully funny farce from feeling quite as long and meandering as its title.

 Bag&Baggage Productions’ The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society’s “Murder at Checkmate Manor” continues through October 31 at The Vault Theatre & Event Space, 350 E. Main St. Hillsbottom.The program warns: “Content advisory warning for adult situations, language and themes, due to the play being a drag show farce about a murder mystery.” For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit www.bagnbaggage.org or call the box office at 503-345-9590.

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