“farce (fars) n. Fr 1(an) exaggerated comedy based on broadly humorous situations 2 an absurd or ridiculous action, pretense, etc.”
These, according to Webster’s, are definitions for the goings-on going on at The Barn Theatre where “Move Over. Mrs. Markham” opened Tuesday evening.
What it doesn’t say is that the broader and more absurd the situations, the more difficult it is to create and enact them properly. In other words, playing farce is not as easy as it has to seem to the audience.
Farces by British playwright Ray Cooney were frequent additions to The Barn seasons in a good many of its 68 seasons. In recent years, his spot has been taken by playwright Ken Ludwig, whose locations were more Americanized (and required no accents, just distinct enunciation).
For “Mrs. Markham,”by Cooney and John Chapman, the accents are back, some with more successful than others. The plot (?), however, remains as frustratingly stupid as ever. Must confess that my aversion to farce is because one honest statement early on could avoid the increasingly involved situations; but then, it wouldn’t be farce, so here goes!
This production is more than fortunate to have veteran comedic actress Penelope Alex in the title role. Her timing is impeccable and the more frantic the situations, the more she pulls incredible explanations out of — thin air! Her ability to remember the many fictitious names — and connections — she has given each character is enviable. Her delivery — audibly and physically — is equally “spot on,” as they say, with facial reactions responsible for more than half of the increasing hilarity.
The same can be said of Kevin Robert White in the role of Alistair Spenlow, Mrs. Markham’s decorator. Although there is a bit too much of the “poof” in his early scenes (is he really anxious to get sexy maid Sylvie (Bethany Edlund) alone?), it proves there is nothing “really” about any of this. His reactions hit home with the opening night audience. Watching his exits, each one with a different take on the on-stage shenanigans, drew more and more extended (and well-deserved) laughter. And his gymnastic turns give new meaning to bedroom acrobatics.
Mr. Philip Markham is played with pompous naivete by another Barn veteran Eric Parker, who blunders blindly through the obvious until he receives a sharp-but-totally-misinterpreted “wakeup call” that rouses his inner Jeeves.
With the exception of the Markhams, every character has his/her own agenda, all focused on the use of that couple’s flat which each of the pairs supposes to be empty — and available — for the evening.
In and out in various stages of undress are Melissa Cotton as Linda Lodge, wife of Philip’s partner Henry, who has an assignation arranged with stuffy Walter Pangbourne (Patrick Hunter), who never goes anywhere without his bowler and his brolly.
Henry Lodge is played by Bruce Hammond with the unflappably dashing demeanor associated with philandering Englishmen whose “stiff upper lip” never quivers. His target for the evening is Miss Wilkinson (Lindsay Maron), a telephone operator he has heard but never seen, an omission that adds greatly to the eventual mass confusion. Both she and Sylvie are costumed primarily in their underwear, a requisite for attractive girls in a Cooney farce.
The only fully-clothed female is Jillian Weimer as Miss Smythe, prudish author of a series of children’s books in search of a new (and sex-less) publisher. Consider that her main characters are dogs and the double entendre rises to a new level.
The split set (side by side rooms) by Kerith Parashak works well and the one necessity in any farce — ultra sturdy doors — do not fail the actors who slam in and out with increasing speed and intensity.
Sex (implied, never demonstrated), mistaken identity and the double entendre are the building blocks of farce. What holds them together is timing. There is no way to teach good comic timing. If it’s there, it’s there. If it’s not….but there is enough in this “Move Over, Mrs. Markham” to make it a fun evening.
‘MOVE OVER, MRS. MARKHAM’ plays at The Barn Theatre on M-96 between Galesburg and Augusta, MI through Aug. 3. For performance times and reservations call (269) 731-4121 between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. daily or visit www.barntheatre.cob