What do you get when you cross three boxes of donuts, a squirt gun, bagpipes, and a knee scooter? Obviously, you get the Richmond Hill Barn Theate's latest comedic offering.
While the plot of Paul Slade Smith’s Unnecessary Farce definitely has various twists and turns, the basic premise is that police officers Eric (Nathan Johnson) and Billie (Dana Skiles) are on a stakeout of their adjoining motel room. Accountant Karen (Jessica White) is being used as bait to take down Mayor Meekly (Scott Harl), who is accused of stealing $16 million from his town.
As the title implies, this production is a fantastic representation of the farce genre as a whole. In case you’re unaware, farce is generally defined as a comic work employing buffoonery and horseplay sprinkled with ludicrous and improbable situations. All of that is accounted for in director Jonathan Grafft’s fine production. At Friday’s performance, the laughs were riotous ones, and while this might not be intellectual humor, funny is funny.
The strength of this production is Grafft’s cast. They’re each truly charming in their roles, and while many of them are presented as exaggerated, overly simplistic caricatures, they all land on the side of endearing rather than annoying, which I, for one, deeply appreciate. Skiles and Johnson are a goofy pair, and it makes you wonder how they became the officers chosen for this job in the first place, given that they’re not exactly self-starters. (This question is answered by the end of the show.) Harl does a great job at portraying his aptly named Mayor Meekly, but comes off as sweet rather than idiotic, which is a fine line to tread.
Unnecessary Farce is well-directed by Grafft, whose fluency with the Barn’s in-the-round space is evident. The mirroring motel rooms provided ample opportunities for characters to use the entirety of the space, and no one spent too much time in the hallway, the bathrooms, or the closets, as the case might be. The only slight downfall came when an actor had to run next door through the hallway; it obviously took much longer than it would have if the doors were right next to each other, as they would be in most motel situations. Grafft, however, kept his characters moving around a ton, and the quick pacing made the evening go by in a flash. I was also personally delighted to sit almost directly behind the set's television set. When choosing a seat, I couldn’t have known what a great one I picked, but the facial expressions of the cast watching the closed-circuit-TV action were personal highlights of the production.
If there was a major blemish to this production, it would lie in the sexual tension – or rather, extreme lack thereof – between Johnson's and White's characters. From my perspective, it was wildly uncomfortable to witness how distressed both actors appeared to be when they were throwing themselves at each other. The situational comedy of the piece required these intimate moments to be interrupted, but the actual interludes suggested sixth-graders pretending to like each other more than actual grown adults. (Perhaps this was a choice meant to exaggerate the humor, but it just didn’t work for me.) When the mayor’s security guard, agent Frank (Mike Kelly) got in on the action, as well, it both escalated the humor and was significantly less awkward to watch, considering he actually seemed interested.
Speaking of Kelly, gosh was he a hoot ... or, should I say, a scoot. The actor's program bio mentions that Kelly pretty severely broke his leg in August. Obviously, his character wasn’t written to need a knee scooter, but going with it made the situation even funnier. Grafft's cast did an excellent job of helping Kelly when he needed it (which wasn’t often), so major kudos to Kelly and his director for making the knee scooter the funniest prop of the show!
By the time you meet Chris White’s character Todd – otherwise known as “The Scotsman” – the humor of Unnecessary Farce is well-established. But why not escalate it further? Todd’s Scottish brogue makes it increasingly difficult to understand him the angrier he gets, and this character tends to get angry. In fact, Frank has such a difficult time understanding Todd that he asks Billie to translate for him, leading to a comical moment in the second act in which Skiles got an actual round of applause for her translation of a rather convoluted rant.
Rounding out the cast is Katie Orwig as Mary Meekly, the mayor’s wife. Orwig isn’t around for long, but she’s fun to watch, especially when she finds herself circling one of the motel rooms with the two cops. Farce, in general, is straightforward, and Unnecessary Farce doesn't change that. Yet judging from the way Friday’s audience was laughing, it felt like no one really wanted any surprises anyway. Even the last line of the show lends itself to a half-groan/half-laugh, and that’s an impressive feat indeed.
Unnecessary Farce runs at the Richmond Hill Barn Theatre (600 Robinson Drive, Geneseo IL) through November 19, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)944-2244 and visiting RHPlayers.com.