Theater

Chamber Theatre Sets Farce in Sheboygan

‘Unnecessary Farce’ is yes, a farce that’s uneven, but fast moving fun.

By - Aug 12th, 2019 03:26 pm
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Amber Smith, Ben Yela, Rick Pendzich, Rachael Zientek. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

Amber Smith, Ben Yela, Rick Pendzich, Rachael Zientek. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

The impish advertising campaign for the 2019-2020 season-opening play at the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, Unnecessary Farce, suggests that traditional farce froth of the past has been updated to modern technological times – with eight doors rather than the more familiar four, modern jokes and police chatter, a video sting camera playing a bawdy part in the plot, and keycard confusion at the motel as two novice cops try to trap the bad guys while filming more sexual encounters than they intended.

But a modern algorithm for farce it is not. Whatever the few updates, the play really breaks no new ground, though it is handsomely presented through August 24 on the Cabot proscenium stage of the Broadway Theatre Center.

Designer Martin McClendon’s two Sheboygan motel rooms mirror each other, setting the lighthearted tone and director Ryan Schabach makes sure his cast hits every top-speed door slam, mood shift, hysteria and exaggerated deadpan called for – not an easy task this. (It’s worth noting the sound design was the work of David Cecsarini, moonlighting from his usual role of running Next Act Theatre.)

Farce almost by definition is froth, though it requires metronomic timing – pushing the audience back and forth from beds to closets to bathrooms.  It plays around with stereotypes and elaborate tumbles to concoct a giddiness that should inspire guffaws, not the off-and-on amusing bits that playwright Paul Slade Smith has set loose. It is clear he has full appreciation of the Georges Feydeau farce models that inspired this takeoff. But knowing the melody is not the same as great singing.

The long arms of coincidence and timing – key to all farce — are not always as funny or surprising as the elaborate setup intends. Indeed, how best to stall for time and how far to push a joke are still areas that director Schabach can work on. The playwright has provided the punctuation, but not all the grammar.

The desire to amuse is constantly present, but this is not a necessary element of theater. You would otherwise, however, miss some good work from players who rise at moments to full clown madness. Rachael Zientek combines physical contortions with rat-a-tat tempo as the most cowardly female cop in captivity. Rick Pendzich has grand fun as a Scottish hitman constantly entangled in his highland brogue. (It is a high compliment to Pendzich that his Scottish mangling brought to mind a 1971 Milwaukee Rep production of a Feydeau farce in which Jeffrey Tambor used a Spanish lisp to cause riotous laughter.)

Actors in farce know which moments require inspired execution. Partly because they act as if their parts require too many changes in motivation and behavior, there are only flashes of the right inventiveness from Ben Yela, Amber Smith and Tim Higgins. But the flashes were welcome. Two Milwaukee veterans, Jonathan Gillard Daly and Jenny Wanasek, float in and out, providing functionality – though their moments popping through doorways contain some surprises for the audience a review should not reveal.

Unnecessary Farce Gallery

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blog here and here.

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