"If uttering the title doesn't leave you breathless, the complexly choreographed comedy will."
-Lee Williams, The Oregonian/OregonLive
Friday the 13th is the all-too-fitting opening date for the new show from Hillsboro’s Bag & Baggage Productions.
“The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society’s Production of Murder at Checkmate Manor,” a lampoon of British whodunits, leans into its bad luck. (If uttering the title doesn’t leave you breathless, the complexly choreographed comedy will.)
In “Farndale,” four barely competent community theater actresses attempt to stage an Agatha Christie-like murder mystery. But opening night mishaps pile up faster than clues or bodies.
A recent rehearsal in Bag & Baggage’s Vault event space was a chain of missed line cues, messy blocking, misplaced props and a wandering spotlight. That’s OK. Most of it’s in the script, from a series of plays that spoof theatrical conventions, “terrible community theater, and British sensibilities around theater,” explains Bag & Baggage’s artistic director, Scott Palmer.
“It’s a very multilayered nut job. It’s just manic,” says Palmer. “It’s also really hard.”
For the cast, it doesn’t make things easier that Palmer chose men for the roles of the ladies of the Guild. The sole male lead is played by Arianne Jacques.
(The hardest part of playing the opposite sex is finding high heels that fit, say the guys. The hurdle for Jacques is lip-synching the male part during a dance number. “I keep singing along with the woman’s part!” she says.)
Sometimes, Palmer switches gender in his casting to deepen textual understanding through a different point of view. As in 2016, when a woman played Captain Ahab for an adaptation of “Moby Dick.”
Not for “Farndale.”
“This is just for the pure fun of it,” Palmer says. ” It’s not RuPaul. It’s much more ‘Monty Python.’ It has that sort of old-English, kind of country dame, pantomime kind of feel to it. Although there are definitely nods to RuPaul in this. There’s some high drag,” he says.
Just to make their jobs more challenging, cast members play multiple roles.
“We’re working on all these layers, trying to figure out when are you in your base character?” says Patrick Spike, who plays “Farndale” grand dame Phoebe — and about a half-dozen other characters. “When are they in the story and telling it? When are they in the story and making mistakes and trying to correct it? And when are they completely lost or popping out and fighting with each other?”
“All of that has to be really clear. It’s a lot of work.”
During rehearsal, Jeremy Sloan, who plays Mercedes, wears a leg support. That too, is part of the Farndale Dramatic Society’s disastrous production.
“Throughout the entire series of the plays Mercedes always has a different physical ailment,” says Palmer. “In this show she actually has a broken leg, so Jeremy has to do all of this work, including the dance numbers, with a leg brace on.”
Even with the extra accessory, Sloan scores one of the funniest bits in the show. He and Jacques get trapped in a dialogue loop, with neither one of their characters remembering what line comes next.
Says Palmer: “We’ve all been in shows where you can see the absolute abject terror in an actor’s eyes. They’re like, ‘I have absolutely no idea what comes next.’ Or they’ve just said a line twice.”
Both thespians and theatergoers will likely relate to many of the stage fumbles from the Farndale Dramatic Society. As Palmer notes: “This stuff actually happens in real life. I have been to theaters where they announce, ‘Unfortunately the lead of Annie will have to be played by Mr. Smith, our pharmacist from down the road.’ ”
“This has that feel to it. It’s great for us because we get to play so much with theatrical conventions.”
“Break a leg” is the customary saying for good luck on opening night. Leaving the rehearsal at the Vault, that hardly seems necessary. It’s written into the “Farndale” ladies’ backstage bumblings — so the show already has a head start toward a smashing run.
“THE FARNDALE AVENUE HOUSING ESTATE TOWNSWOMEN’S GUILD DRAMATIC SOCIETY’S PRODUCTION OF MURDER AT CHECKMATE MANOR”
Where: The Vault Theatre & Event Space, 350 E. Main St., Hillsboro
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 13-29; and 7:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 30 and Tuesday, Oct. 31