BWW Review: UNNECESSARY FARCE Wins Slapstick Laughs at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre
Buffoonery and horseplay. Crude characterizations. Ludicrously improbable situations. Thank you, Merriam Webster, for giving us the pillars of any farce. I'd like to add that farces are also often unnecessary. They're the result of mistaken identities, tangled lies, and absurd circumstances that prompt characters to say things like "there's a very simple explanation..." -- but that explanation never comes until the very end.
In this particular Unnecessary Farce at the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, there's a lot of people running in and out of rooms, slamming doors, hiding in closets, and taking off their clothes. "That hardly passes for a plot," winks Officer Billie Dwyer (Rachel Zientek) to the audience. But Unnecessary Farce pulls out a pretty hilarious little plot -- one involving two wannabe "real" cops, an accountant who keeps stripping, a featherbrained mayor, an agent sworn to protect, and a Scottish hitman named Todd (Rick Pendzich).
Set in a Sheboygan motel, Unnecessary Farce sees two officers, the aforementioned Dwyer (Zientek) and Eric Sheridan (Ben Yela), hoping to prove themselves through a successful sting operation. The two are armed with a tower of donuts and recording equipment in the room next door to where Mayor Meekly (Jonathan Gillard Daly) is set to meet with accountant Karen Brown (Amber Smith) to talk finances. The mayor is suspected of snitching a cool 16 million from city funds, and our daring, donut-fueled duo hopes to capture his confession on tape.
The plot informs clever staging and scenery by Martin McClendon: mirrored hotel rooms connected by an adjoining door, each room complete with doors to closets, bathrooms, and the hallway. That's eight doors total, and they're all flung open, slammed, inadvertently weaponized, and locked in ill time -- repeatedly. A farce like this one relies heavily on funny physical stunts, comedic timing, and actors leaning on their environment to snag big laughs. It can't be easy. In fact, many actors say comedy is the hardest genre of all. Yet director Ryan Schabach and his troupe of comedians has pulled it off.
There isn't an unfunny one in the bunch. From the Highland Hitman, AKA Todd, whose Scottish brogue grows progressively incomprehensible the angrier he gets to the bumbling mayor who innocently walks in at the most awkward moments, this hilarious script by Paul Slade Smith is put into laugh-aloud action by the actors assembled by Milwaukee Chamber Theatre (MCT).
Pendzich's Todd is uproariously funny, never breaking from "stern assassin." In a kilt. Who serenades his victims by bagpipe before pumping them full of lead. Playing off him as the earnest Officer Dwyer, Zientek won a quick round of applause for her mile-a-minute translation of a boiling mad, long-winded, and incomprehensibly Scottish Todd. Are these two ever not hilariously scene-stealing? I would (and do!) make a beeline for any comedy featuring Zientek and Pendzich.
As the half-clothed accountant and half-brained Officer Sheridan, Smith and Yela nail both comedic intimacy and genuine affection. They're funny and they're cute together. Jonathan Gillard Daly plays the sweet, absent-minded Mayor Meekly to his signature Daly perfection, backed by bodyguard Agent Frank (Tim Higgins). Frank is actually a double agent suffering an escalating crisis of conscience; Higgins enjoys laughs galore. Lastly, in the interest of no major spoilers, let's just say Jenny Wanasek is a hoot as Act Two's Mrs. Meekly.
Farces aren't for everyone. They're silly and can be tiringly convoluted. But that's the point. According to the MCT audience guide, most farces "feature the convention of comic near-misses -- usually around six. Unnecessary Farce sports eight." So yes, this is farcical theater to the extreme, aimed at testing your reflex for laughter. What a fun and funny way to kick off the 2019-2020 theater season here in Milwaukee. I'd say this Farce is anything but unnecessary.
Photo credit: Paul Ruffolo