Though the weather outside has been frightful, inside the Cape Fear Playhouse on Castle Street, it is warm, cozy and filled with laughter. That’s because Tony Moore’s ByChance Productions is staging three farces—in fact, three classic vaudeville-like acts. Historically, ByChance produces the original works of Tony Moore, one of Wilmington’s former most beloved playwrights (he now lives in Charlotte). So, the choice to show three short farces that Moore finds inspiring, give his audience a rare insight into his process as an artist.
That having been said, more than any other medium (except film) theater is a collaborative process, and like all of his shows, “A Night of One-Act Farces” would not have seen stage time were it not for Audrey McCrummen, the woman who makes sets happen. Moore and McCrummen are joined this time by Pam Grier as director of not one but three separate pieces, “The Bear,” “Box and Cox” and “The Stepmother.” It is a fascinating undertaking, and the major theme that seems to connect the evening is marriage.
Beginning in Russia with Anoton Chekov’s “The Bear,” we find a widow mourning her dead husband (Terri Batson) and a very concerned housemaid (Tamica Katzmann) trying to find a way forward for both of them. Seven months locked in the house and not leaving is just unhealthy. Consequently, when a neighboring farmer calls to collect a debt (Charles Auten), the well-intentioned maid sets about, trying to engineer their escape. Confusion, miscommunication, a duel and hilarity ensue.
Casting-wise this piece is a lot of fun. Katzmann has huge expressive eyes that she uses to great comedic effect, especially when interacting with Auten, who towers over her. Real-life couple Batson and Auten really make the sparks fly onstage, too. Farce is a form that is traditionally dependent upon really strong physical comedy to make it work. Batson draws on her background as a dancer to make powerful physical statements that heighten the action considerably. Auten is a very tall and well-built man, who usually fills any space he is in with considerable charm and charisma. To see him actually fold up in a ball of insecurity or stomp his feet like a petulant small child is surprising. He achieves the comedic effect needed for the scene.
By far, my favorite piece is Arnold Bennett’s “The Stepmother.” Perhaps it is due to all the jabs he took at the misunderstood and long suffering profession of lady-novelists. It is a topic with which my date certainly felt a kinship. Beth Raynor plays Christine Fevershem, the secretary to a popular female novelist (Brandy Jones) at the turn of the century. As was common with pieces of this kind and time, the conceit is that the servant is far smarter than her employer. Thus sets about saving both of their lives from her employer’s mistakes. In this case Fevershem has fallen in love with the stepson of her employer (Anthony Corvino), who has been disinherited. Add in the additional romantic interest of the downstairs neighbor, played with side-splitting hilarity by Ron Hasson, and it is a recipe for farcical success. Again, a real-life couple, this time Raynor and Corvino, portray a sweet couple onstage with a palpable level of comfort.
If anything, one of the casting choices surprises. In her turn-of-the-century morning gown, Brandy Jones is very pretty but far from the sexpot she frequently gets cast to play. It’s nice to see her in a role that shows off her acting skills, because as the straight woman to Hasson’s hilariously hysterical doctor, she is perfect.
Rounding out the evening is the well-known and well-loved “Box and Cox” by John Maddison Morton. Charmingly, Bradley Cox has been cast to play Mr. Cox to Langley McCarol’s Mr. Box, two gentlemen who unknowingly are renting the same room: one at night, the other during the day, from a very perspicacious land lady (Pam Grier). Inevitably, one day they discover each other, but, worse, they discover a mutual engagement to the same woman. In spite of Cox’s accent—a la Graham Chapman with a hangover—he and McCarol have wonderful comedic chemistry together. They utilize rapid-fire dialogue and almost mirror-image blocking. It is, I admit, a show I have long-loved. But, more than just the humor of it, the show manages to shed light on more desperate aspects of Victorian economics. In a way it appears dated, but it is actually still pertinent today.
Taking on three shows in one night is quite a feat for any creative team, but Grier and McCrummen pull it off with panache. Among the many adaptive and functional set pieces, McCrummen includes a lattice-work screen that begins life as a window in “The Bear” and morphs to become part of a room partition in “Box and Cox.”
Grier has a real eye for casting and for the chemistry of space onstage. She moves people toward and away from each other’s well-building anticipation and riding the waves of humor. Humor can be tricky, and farces especially can be difficult to stage: The actors have to play so seriously that it becomes funny by nature of ridiculousness. It can be tough to find that balance between understanding that humor comes from playing it straight and missing the humor altogether.
Though I recognize farce is not for everyone, anyone who loves comedy will enjoy this wonderful evening. ByChance puts on three really good shows for the price of one ticket; a bargain with add-in belly laughs makes it a treasure.
A Night of One-Act Farces, presented by ByChance Productions: “The Bear,” by Anton Chekov, “The Stepmother,” by Arnold Bennett, and “Box & Cox,” by John Maddison Morton
Thurs. – Sun., Jan 9th – 12th, 8 p.m., with Sun. matinees, 3 p.m.
Cape Fear Playhouse
613 Castle Street