Theater: Restrained Reset

Ross Valley Players stages world premiere of ‘Way Out West’

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In ‘Way Out West,’ gullible officials and citizens are taken in by a pair of con men who pose as governmental functionaries. Photo courtesy of Ross Valley Players.

By Charles Brousse

A friend recently asked me, “What’s the difference between comedy and farce? Aren’t both supposed to make us laugh?”

I referred him to the old banana peel joke. It’s a comedy if a nice but accident-prone young man whom you have come to care about slips on a banana peel while trying to keep up with his fast-moving sweetheart and she rewards him with a kiss. That’s worth an “aww” and a chuckle. It’s a farce if a pompous young man who is forever touting his superiority slips on a banana peel, falls, gets up, nonchalantly brushes himself off and resumes walking as if nothing happened—only to immediately slip again. The house will probably rock with laughter.

Stage farces are composed of multiple scenes like the latter. The distinguishing factor is whether the audience has an emotional involvement with the characters and their predicaments. Of course, there are other differences—in production style, degree of realism, psychological depth,  etc.—but both theatrical forms have a long history and can be immensely entertaining if done well. I think farce poses greater challenges because it’s essentially planned mayhem, or organized chaos, whichever term you prefer. The point is that everything has to be exactly in place. Instead of the linear storytelling found in comedies, farce depends on perfect timing, athleticism and an ability to improvise on the part of the actors, creative staging by the director and a script that features many opportunities for playful absurdity.

All of which leads us to the subject of this week’s column: Ross Valley Players’ (RVP) current world premiere of Way Out West, by Marin County author and bookseller Joel Eis. The play is part of the “RAW” (Ross Alternative Works) series, and has been under development for several years.

First, an important disclosure: The following brief appraisal is based on what I saw on what was supposed to be opening night, but wasn’t. Due to the unexpected departure of a performer in the key role of Mayor Andy “Rabbit’s Foot” Monahan two days earlier, director Buzz Halsing stepped in for the Thursday night preview and then yielded to Alex Ross for the remainder of the run. After a few hours of rehearsal, the veteran RVP actor went on for the Friday night opening (now reduced to a preview) with script in hand, and managed the sudden assignment with his usual competence. But the impact of these unsettling events could not help but have a substantial effect on everyone concerned.

Against that background, here is what I can say with some certainty about Way Out West as a play and RVP’s ability to handle a project of this nature: For the most part, Eis’ adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s early 19th century play, The Inspector General, could have a bright future if some simple adjustments are made.

Eis resets the action to San Francisco in 1848, then a small town where gullible officials and citizens are taken in by a pair of con men who pose as governmental functionaries sent to look into reports of local corruption, of which there is no scarcity. Anxious to cover up, town officials ply their visitors with bribes, and their women, enthralled by power, throw themselves into their arms. The imposters can’t believe their good fortune! Eventually, though … well, you probably can guess the rest. This scenario is replete with rich opportunities for broad humor, but I had the feeling that Eis, perhaps guided by a desire to stay as close to Gogol’s original as possible, chose to be more conservative than he had to be.

As for the performances, it’s really not fair to evaluate a cast that had to work under such difficult circumstances. What I can say, however, is that if a RAW play is to continue to be included in the regular season—as I hope that it will be—RVP should provide the same resources that are given to its other shows. Community theater or not, there should be no second-class productions. Finally, while I’m dishing out unsolicited advice, beware of farces!

NOW PLAYING: Way Out West runs through April 23 at the Ross Valley Players’ Barn Theatre, Marin Art & Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross; 415/456-9555; rossvalleyplayers.com.

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