The days are getting short, the nights cold and dark. Our skies now sometimes shudder with thunder, and pounding rain is back in the picture. Fear not – just in time to stave off an incapacitating bout of seasonal affective disorder, the bizarrely talented denizens of Bag and Baggage gallop to the rescue with The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society’s Production of Murder at Checkmate Manor! Playwrights David McGillivray and Walter Zerlin Jr. have created just the right vehicle for director Scott Palmer’s somewhat quirky artistic sensibility, and B&B’s new theater, The Vault, is a perfect setting for this in-your-face cross-dressing farce. By the middle of act 2 my cheeks were numb from constant grinning (relieved only by frequent bursts of most unladylike cackling).
The show is a shameless exposé of the foibles of community theater – “what can go wrong, will” – writ large. Very, very large – almost as large as the unstoppable Mrs. Phoebe Reese (Patrick Spike, reprising the character he first foisted upon the good folks of Hillsboro in 2012). The untimely loss of a key actor means that Gordon the Stage Manager (Arianne Jacques) is drafted as part of the cast at the last minute, the unseen, exceptionally inept stage technician Adrian bumbles every cue, the “ladies” of the cast, with little mastery of their lines and no concept of blocking, are positively dripping with venomous rivalry, and the evening is punctuated with an endless stream of sight gags based on missing or misaligned props and set pieces (where IS that pesky staircase, anyway?). The plot, a very loosely woven British murder mystery, is almost irrelevant but provides a sturdy backdrop for the cast’s irrepressible comedic chops. In short, a British women’s theatrical group (longer in the tooth than talent) attempts to stage a murder mystery. Many people die. The identity and motive of the murderer are irrelevant. All of the actors are in drag (four men as women, one woman as a man). Nobody buys anything at the pre-intermission fashion show, but the bearded Jacques steals the show with her silver lamé gown. I get to drink red wine (through a straw!) inside the theater. The audience (myself included) loves every minute of it.
B&B newcomer Tyler Buswell (as Mrs. Felicity Fortescue, playing Pawn the Butler in a lovely blonde wig) is a joy to watch – how often do we get to see a man playing a woman playing a man? However, the blonde bombshell trophy goes to Jeremy Sloan’s “Mrs. Mercedes Blower” – his long, lovely legs are accentuated by tasteful tennis attire, and his attempts at playing the ingénue are foiled by his incessant coy flirtation with any audience member in reach (when not preoccupied by his on-stage romance with the tiny Jacques). Spike’s explosively effusive “Phoebe” contrasts nicely with Norman Wilson’s intense (and intensely disapproving) Mrs. Thelma Greenwood, whose glaring eyes and fixed moue are external signs of a rigid object apparently lodged in an unmentionable part of her (his?) anatomy. The timing, expressions, and physical comedy from all five performers work to keep the show on the right side of the border between hilarious and ridiculous.
As one would expect with a deliberate train wreck of a show, the set and props are chaotic – a few rugs, chairs in the wrong places, a faux picture window that looks out on a series of cardboard backdrops reminiscent of pre-school theatrical productions, cocktail glasses glued to the tray, a nonexistent dog snoozing by the world’s cheapest fake fireplace. Melissa Heller’s costumes are perfect in their perfect absurdity, and the makeup design is too wonderful.
Scott Palmer, Assistant Director Cassie Greer, and the rest of the small army responsible for this Bag & Baggage offering hit every note right. It may be another five years or so before the fine ladies of Farndale Avenue come back across the pond – miss this gem at your peril!
The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society’s Production Of Murder at Checkmate Manor is playing at The Vault, 350 E. Main Street, Hillsboro, through the end of October, with 7:30 p.m. performances October 19, 20, 21, 26, 27, 28, 30, 31 plus 2:00 p.m. shows on October 22 and 29.