THE FARNDALE AVENUE HOUSING ESTATE TOWNSWOMEN'S GUILD DRAMATIC SOCIETY MURDER MYSTERYby David McGillivray and Walter Zerlin Jr.
Directed by David Ruffin
Stage Manager/Asst. Director - Jason Sikes
Technicians - Aubrey Jones, Richard Jenkins
Set Design / Construction - David Ruffin
Gordon - Alfredo Martinez
Felicity - Sarah Ruffin
Audrey - Jennifer Fortson
Mrs. Phoebe Reece - Kristin Spires
Thelma - Crystal Rincon
Reviewed Performance: 10/22/2011
Reviewed by Bonnie K. Daman, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Let me explain.
A lot of productions I review, I try to show up with a clean slate, meaning no expectations, or sometimes come with only a basic knowledge of the plot, if any. I like to arrive at the theatre, take my seat, soak in my surroundings, and delve into the playbill/program until the show begins.
So here I am, last Saturday night, acting like a studious and professional reviewer when Pantagleize Theatre Company throws me for a complete loop. The 100-seat theatre near downtown Fort Worth is in full swing with their production The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen's Guild Dramatic Society Murder Mystery and the show is anything but a mystery.
At first glance you notice the pristine black and white set, the checkerboard floor, wooden shutters, and a decent mix and match of furniture that pass for upper class. That's when you notice the painted door stage right, and somewhere near the center of the back wall a panel painted to look like a window with a colored-in blazing fireplace below. It's a decently illustrated piece of artwork, for a school play, but I slowly begin to craft in my head to what extent I want to rant about the "okay" set in my review.
The show starts and a man creeps behind the wooden shutters brandishing a knife and looking awfully suspicious. As he slithers out of sight, the panel with the fake fireplace suddenly drops to the floor leaving the stunned actor frozen in embarrassment before he scurries off backstage. Immediately, another character moseys onto the set, heads straight for the panel, and promptly begins to reset the piece - only it's upside-down and she could care less, much to the amusement of the audience.
I'll be honest and say that until that moment, I was completely fooled. In those few minutes, the cast of Farndale successfully sets up one of the funniest mockeries of a stage genre that I've seen for some time.
In honor of the Halloween season, the Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Towns?oh, you get the point....the women of Farndale are proud to present a murder mystery of the highest degree. Anyone might be the killer and anyone may be the next target. The only problem is, the ladies can't seem to get their "act" together.
Hosted by the scene-stealing Mrs. Phoebe Reese, the British ladies fumble everything from their lines, the props, their mismatched period piece costumes, and manage to unintentionally skip a few scenes that they hastily decide the audience doesn't need to bother knowing anyhow.
To make matters worse, the stage crew has a mind of its own, constantly missing lighting cues despite rigorous prompting from the cast, and running the gamut of miscellaneous sound bites and effects at their whim, expecting they'll get it right eventually. In simple terms, it's a train wreck.
Which brings me back to my original question ? how do you critique a show that is supposed to be a disaster? I'm not even sure how to answer my own question but I'll give it try.
Director David Ruffin takes full advantage of the anything goes, no rules script. Whether he unleashes his cast to react and do as they please, or if he has the gift for blocking spontaneity, Ruffin's direction is well-rehearsed and well-delivered by his actors. One or two scenes tend to drag out such as Gordon and Thelma's repetitive back and forth banter somewhere during Act I but otherwise the show moves quickly.
A stand out moment, Ruffin plays musical chairs with the props in a hilarious and maddening scene that takes time away from the plot, but is nonetheless entertaining and masterfully choreographed. Other scenes are amusing due to their Drama 101 feel as you see the actors performing a focused task while reciting their lines such as bouncing a ball on a tennis racket or replacing chess pieces on a chess board.
What is impressive and is also a compliment to the cast is that the spoofs don't get old. We never tire of the cast rolling their eyes at the lighting or the awkward mishaps with props and the set. I usually don't have much patience with slapstick silly comedy but Ruffin's production manages to hold interest for two full hours.
Steering the show as the boisterous Mrs. Phoebe Reece (the only character with a full name) is Kristin Spires who displays an overt enthusiasm and flare for the dramatic. Spires is an absolute pleasure to sit back and watch as she struts around the stage desperately trying to keep her murder mystery production together. As the self-appointed lead, Spires gets the opportunity to die several times throughout the show, and each passing is grander than the next. Her comedic timing is dead on (no pun intended) and she brings a comedic physicality to the role not just any person could easily handle.
Quite the vixen, the doe-eyed Crystal Rincon plays Thelma who is recently crowned Miss Farndale, or something of the sort, and is making a special appearance onstage for the Townswomen's Guild. Rincon has several great deer-in-the-headlight moments and also has a niche for physical comedy. The difference between Rincon and Spires is that Rincon's funniest moments are subtle and quiet, and if you're looking, are laugh-out-loud hilarious. Her butler bell imitation is by far the wittiest.
Jennifer Fortson plays Audrey, a character with many faces and always the proper, upright "pip, pip, cheerio" attitude. Fortson takes a few scenes to shake off the nerves but once going, she's a ray of light onstage. Even though she resigns to play the elder characters within the show, Fortson is youthful, vibrant and has an infectious laugh that makes her performance a pleasure to watch.
As Felicity, who portrays Pawn the Butler, Sarah Ruffin does a decent job as the stiff-lipped, zombie-like hired hand. Her voice as Pawn grates on me a bit, but the role is an odd one to begin with so I prefer the moments when Ruffin breaks away and becomes her lady character Felicity. Unfortunately it's not often.
Her transition from Felicity to Pawn is a complete 180 so from what I could tell, Felicity is a little ditsy which makes her transition back into Pawn uncanny and comical.
The lone male in the cast of five is Alfredo Martinez as Gordon who I believe is the former assistant stage manager filling in for a missing actor ? the character, not Martinez. Martinez holds his own among the dramatically-inclined group of women, and matches their energy onstage. His faux-mishaps aren't always as believable as the rest. He is more like the guy who shows up to his own surprise birthday party he knows about and has to act surprised.
The lighting and sound effects play to the strengths of the performance, giving the actors plenty to work with and causing copious amounts of good-humored confusion for the audience. I secretly wonder if the technicians change the effects for each show just to keep the actors on their toes. Otherwise, if they're keeping with the same set every night, the instinctive reactions from the cast come across genuine and completely candid.
If you've heard of Farndale before, Pantagleize produced the Dramatic Society's version of A Christmas Carol in the past year. Playwrights David McGillivray and Walter Zerlin Jr. have at least seven or eight additional existing scripts that feature the ladies of Farndale, the Murder Mystery being one of the more widely-known.
Since I've now been schooled in the ways and talents of the Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen's Guild Dramatic Society, I recommend a visit to Pantagleize Theatre Company to join in on the fun, the fundraising and this farce of a murder mystery.
Pantagleize Theatre Company
1115 Rio Grande Ave, Ft Worth, TX 76102.
Runs through October 30th, 2011
Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sunday, October 30 at 3:00pm
Ticket prices are $16 to $17
Tixs can be purchased by calling the box office at 817-472-0032 or by visiting www.pantatheater.org.