actors get away with farce in wct’s ‘barnaby’
By Katherine Beeson
Published June 13, 2019
The first line of director David Kaye’s note in the program of Waukesha Civic’s “Why Bump Off Barnaby?” states: “I love farce.”
The first line of my review of this show must be to state that I do NOT. I find very little humor in implausible situations, seeing characters – in response to a desperate plea at a critical moment for pen and paper for example – fumbling around a desk and wondering if a pencil may be substituted and whether plain or monogrammed paper should be used, or a character losing valuable time because she won’t reveal what she knows until she must repeatedly reprimand someone who did not refer to her by her full name or the worst offender – a person so muddled that she does not notice she is speaking into the wrong end of the telephone. That being said, I can separate my feelings for this genre from my reactions to how this farce was performed.
The story takes place in a drawing room of a rambling mansion where Orion Leduc, the aging lord of the manner (played ably by Mike Crowley) has invited several family members to dine and stay the night. A relative not seen for many years, Barnaby Folcey (Elias Venson, nicely played if a bit too quiet in his delivery) is also in attendance. Eventually alone with two other guests, Barnaby and his companions notice how a fly, sipping from Barnaby’s glass of sherry, is poisoned and dies. This leads Barnaby to admit that two people in the house are imposters but before he can say much more, he is dragged off (after the prerequisite storm temporarily takes out the lights, of course.) Barnaby staggers back into the room with a knife protruding from his back and dies before he can write out the full name of his killer (because of the aforementioned pen and paper fiasco.) With only three letters to go on – B A R – it turns out that everyone in the house has names or connections that could mean they are the killer. It turns out that a deceased relative has given many family members partial clues to the location of a family treasure and only the last surviving member will be able to claim it. Barnaby, while a relative, was not included in this stipulation and hence the title of the spoof.
In farces many characters can be annoying caricatures, but no one was two-dimensional or over-the-top in their performances and a number of actors actually used this limitation to their advantage. Brenda Poppy as the dim-witted niece, Dora, is delightfully daffy, exasperating most of her family, but proving to be very entertaining. Tammy Vrba’s elderly Lady Barbara Fenwick is quite hard of hearing, yet ultimately can still figure out what is going on. “Sooner or later,” says Orion, she comes around to it.” Vrba is dignified and believable in the role and I liked her style.
Kudos to talented Jim Donaldson as Jeff Barnett, a reporter from the United States who becomes the level-headed voice of reason as this motley crew tries to figure out what is going on. Donaldson has a very strong stage presence which every farce truly needs.
This was supposed to be set in England, but the only person with any type of sustained accent was Magnolia, the maid/law student (Andrea Roedel-Schroeder;) however, her rapid Cockney delivery was a bit hard to understand at times. Joe Nettesheim as Medkins, the butler, seemed to lose a bit of steam at the end and needed a bit more punch; his emotions were lacking in his huge block of dialogue in Act II.
The rest of the cast members -- Joyce Sponcia as Miss Barnsdale, the old nanny, Antoniette Stikl, as Rosalind Barstow, an actress and Mandi Veeder as Cleo Barton, a friend of Orion’s who wants to be much more – nicely fleshed out their characters.
Director David Kaye took this farce and made it an enjoyable evening of theater for a non-fan. By the way, I recognized the “ancestral portrait” over the fireplace as a local actor making an uncredited cameo. I’m sure many in the audience will be able to do so as well, so I won’t spoil the fun.
“Why Bump Off Barnaby?” runs through June 23. For tickets call 262-547-0708 or waukeshacivictheatre.org. Waukesha Civic Theatre is located at 264 West Main Street in Waukesha.