UNNECESSARY FARCE by Paul Slade Smith
As the title indicates the play is a modern farce that relies on sharp timing and broad physical comedy. The main staging conceit of the show is the simultaneous action that happens in two motel rooms that are mirror images of each other, divided by a wall that has an adjoining door. After analyzing the script, it was evident the show’s success was dependent on the razor sharp timing necessary to land the punch lines and formidable physical bits, and an ensemble of actors capable of pulling it off.
Initially, the scenic designer offered the visual images of a run-down motel on the outskirts of town, but I veered us toward a more modern corporate style plain wrap cookie cutter motel that is now prevalent in both smaller towns and urban areas. The absurdity of such places seemed like an apt location for farce in my mind. After considerable back and forth communication, attempting to reach a middle ground interpretation of the space, we settled on a modern, efficient interior with bright fast food like colors, but one that was clearly geared toward the budget conscious consumer. It may have been bright and new but it was cheap and devoid of any real character. The script is specific in terms of the number of doors required for exits and entrances. The text also stipulates a few necessary set pieces for certain comedy bits: a potted plant and queen sized beds in both hotel rooms. These items were factored into the set design but with an eye on the amount of space around these objects and between the many doors necessary to stage the physical gags.
I worked with the costume designer to create costumes that would suggest prototypes of the characters. An FBI agent in a gray wool suit, the mayor’s secretary in business women’s wear, the mayor’s wife in a channel wanna-be outfit, one police officer in official uniform blues and the other in undercover casual. The play’s odd standout is a Scotsman in full-on tartan plaid (we chose bright red) and tam o’ shanter that we made unapologetically oversized, and which the actor used successfully for a lot of added comedy bits.
Although I initially expected the lighting of the play would be the easiest aspect of design, and the lights would essentially go up and down at the beginning and end of each act, we discovered in the process that the back and forth action between the motel rooms stage left and right required subtle lighting cues to provide focus. Once we started adding subtle light cues, we gave ourselves permission to design some key segments outside the realm of realism. For two monologues, we added suspense music and light cues that dropped the area light out and focused sharply down on the characters who were speaking.
I relied heavily on my background as a choreographer to stage the play. There is an initial exposition scene that takes place in the stage right motel room, and after that scene, other characters begin making entrances from the various doors in the set, and the show if off and running. Very sharp timing of the entrances and exits had to be finessed and rapid dialogue between actors in the different “motel rooms” (stage left and right) had to be drilled and defined throughout the rehearsal process. I found myself communicating with actors about the physicality and timing very much the same way I work when I choreograph: working smaller segments slowly and then running them multiple times, each time increasing the speed, them putting the smaller segments together to create larger units, then running the larger units over multiple times. I found myself saying the word “again” a lot. There were also some intricate over lapping and repetitive dialogue segments that required drilling of lines. After drilling we would then work the physicality of the intricate dialogue segments and slowly put dialogue together with physical movements and blocking; and then increase the speed in increments.
I’ve discovered that no play is “easy” to direct and no play directs itself. There is always an aspect that emerges and requires the majority of directorial time and attention. Whereas a play like How I Learned To Drive might require a considerable amount of time in addressing psychological aspects of character, and a production like Mothers and Sons requires time to focus on naturalism and believability, Unnecessary Farce required the majority of rehearsals spent on intricate timing and working (and re-working) physical actions for the actors. I spent a considerable amount of time constructing sight gags and broad physical approaches to blocking in advance of the rehearsal start date. Once we were all in the rehearsal room and on the set together, we adjusted accordingly.
Working on this play also underscored my belief to never judge the material we direct. Unnecessary Farce is a play that has been done primarily at summer stock and community theaters around the country and could be viewed as a play with little dramatic or thematic weight or import (and you could argue that point to be true). And yet when this play went up before full houses at Saint Michael’s Playhouse, the audience response and reaction was one of the strongest of any show I’ve directed. Actors had to hold for laughs throughout performances and some of the physical bits during performances received applause. For me, the most important guideline to follow as a director is to identify the style of the play and what the play is attempting to be for the audience. Commit to that style and allow that style to guide every detail of the production. This play wants to be a full throttle physical farce that builds and surprises the audience with clever staging and sharp timing. On that score, I think the production realized its intention.