Slapstick, shtick and sight gags ignite the laughter in TCTA´s farce ´Flaming Idiots´

Bill Blankenship/
Postal worker turned restaurateur Carl (Austen Hanley) shows a sign a former coworker made for his flaming drink, a specialty of the house for the failing eatery, in Topeka Civic Theatre & Academy´s production of the Tom Rooney farce ¨Flaming Idiots.¨

By Bill Blankenship

If ¨location, location, location¨ is the mantra of the real estate business, then ¨timing, timing, timing¨ is the hallmark of a great farce.

¨I always call farces the ballet of the absurd,” said Shannon J. Reilly, who is directing Topeka Civic Theatre & Academy´s production of the Tom Rooney farce, ¨Flaming Idiots,¨ which opened an 11-show run Friday, Jan. 20, pays through Saturday, Feb. 11.

¨It´s absolute impeccable timing — the rhythm, the beats, everything — and all of it makes no sense,¨ Reilly continued about ¨Flaming Idiots´¨ sometimes incongruous plot. ¨You just have to be able to jump into it and make it believable because people don´t normally drop their pants in the middle of a restaurant and that´s going to happen.¨

In fact, the audiences of ¨Flaming Idiots¨ will see the underwear-clad bottoms of a third of of its nine-member cast.

Bill Blankenship/
That reporter Jayne Fryman (Jaclyn Amber Nischbach) accidentally tucked the hem of her skirt in her panties does not go unnoticed by the staff of Phil´s restaurant, from left, Eugene (Joshua Luttrell), Carl (Austen Hanley), Phil (Matt Briden) and Ernesto (Devan R. Garcia) in ¨Flaming Idiots,¨ a farce playing through Feb. 11 at Topeka Civic Theatre & Academy, 3028 S.W. 8th.

As in all great farces, the pace of ¨Flaming Idiots¨ gets faster and faster as the play progresses.

¨The last scene of the the play, you can´t take a breath. They have to move, they have to move, they have to move,¨ said Reilly, snapping his fingers, ¨in the timing of going in and out of doors and bodies flying around.¨

¨It´s a ballet,¨ added the director.

One of the ¨Flaming Idiots¨ featured ballerinas is Bruce Smith, a veteran actor who has done so many farces, he has lost count.

¨I think Bruce´s whole life is a farce,¨ Reilly quipped.

Setting and keeping a farce´s frenetic pace is the key to making people laugh,¨ said Smith, who plays Louie, a 73-year-old hit man whose senior moments of forgetfulness and lapses in concentration challenge his ability to carry out a contract to ¨kill¨ a customer in a failing restaurant started by two former post office workers, Phil (Matt Briden) and Carl (Austen Hanley).

Bill Blankenship/
Louie (Bruce Smith), a 73-year-old hit man, sucks coffee from his tie which for some reason he keeps dunking in his cup in Topeka Civic Theatre & Academy´s production of the Tom Rooney farce ¨Flaming Idiots,¨ playing though Feb. 11.

¨I´m perfectly content to play the old guy now. It hurts a whole lot less,¨ said Smith, referring to all the pratfalls and other physical comedy Briden, Hanley and other younger cast members  do in the play.

The sight gags, slapstick and shtick fill some gaping plot gaps in the script that seemed to have opened during the play´s development and never got closed in the final editing.

However, Reilly said: ¨They left all the big meaty chunks of running around, dropping things and throwing people around. They left all the physical stuff alive, and that´s what rally makes this farce so demanding and also so fun to watch.¨

The story involves Phil and Carl quitting the post office and sinking all their money, plus a big chunk borrowed from a mobster loan shark, into a restaurant that immediately fails.

Desperate, they remember another restaurant got popular when a mobster was shot in it. They decide they can recreate the phenomenon at their place, but rather than really killing someone, the victim will be The Body (A.J. Dome), a corpse they borrow  from an uncle´s mortuary.

Bill Blankenship/
Carl (Austen Hanley) tries using a kitchen knife and whipping cream to shave The Body (AJ Dome) before they put him in the dining area so he can be ¨murdered¨ by a hit man he and his business partner hired in a desperate attempt to save their failing restaurant in ¨Flaming Idiots,¨ a farce playing at Topeka Civic Theatre & Academy, 3028 S.W. 8th.

Although the playwright Rooney specifically advises in the script to use a dummy instead of an actor as The Body, Reilly said he knew from the get go he wanted a live actor to play the dead man.

¨There´s just this absolute joy of watching a man having to stay so still while absolute insanity is happening around him,¨ Reilly said.

Because ¨Flaming Idiots¨ is a farce, nothing goes according to plan, especially when other characters get involved. They include:

• Officer Task (Dusty Nichols), a mounted police officer whose entrances and exits involve being thrown off or dragged away by his off-stage horse. And when the always-hungry Task is in the restaurant, he is oblivious to everything around him, including The Body with which he engages in a long, but one-sided conversation.

Bill Blankenship/
After flirting with chef Bernadette (Alisha Bolz), left, mounted Officer Task (Dusty Nichols) gets yanked out a door by his off-stage horse in the farce ¨Flaming Idiots,¨ which runs through Feb. 11 at Topeka Civic Theatre & Academy, 3028 S.W. 8th.

• Eugene (Joshua Luttrell), a waiter whose true dream is the be on the stage as an actor. He rehearses Shakespeare in the restaurant´s kitchen and mistakes The Body for a famed but reclusive director with whom he wants to work.

• Ernesto (Devan R. Garcia), who in spite of his expensive suit takes a job as a busboy to cover a money laundering scheme involving the mobster that financed the restaurant. Despite his Latino name and heavy Hispanic accent, Ernesto claims to be Norwegian, and when he sees The Body, he knows he is dead but doesn´t make a big fuss because he doesn´t want any cops around.

• Bernadette (Alisha Bolz), the chef whose inability to hear and speak doesn´t stop her from using the phone to tap out Morse Code to alert the authorities when she discovers the plot to shoot The Body.

Bill Blankenship/
Waiter and would-be actor Eugene (Joshua Luttrell) tries out his Hamlet on unimpressed restaurant owner Phil (Matt Briden) in a scene from Topeka Civic Theatre & Academy´s production of ¨Flaming Idiots,¨ a farce by Tom Rooney.

• Jayne (Jaclyn Amber Nischbach), a reporter for the Daily Local News Dispatch Vigilant Courier, who in addition to covering the police beat also happens to be the newspaper´s restaurant critic. Jayne makes a stunning entry when she arrives at Phil´s with the hem of her dress accidentally tucked into the waistband of her panties. She later gets drunk and flirts with The Body.

Providing a good synopsis of ¨Flaming Idiots¨ is a challenge.

¨I usually say it´s ´Flaming Idiots,´ and I´m the idiot,¨ Hanley said.

Briden offered: ¨It´s a play about two idiots trying to make a restaurant work and, eventually, stuff catches on fire.¨

Reilly added: ¨The good thing about is a farce is that it´s such good mind candy, but the bad thing about a farce is you can´t describe it succinctly because there´s so many elements to it.¨

Bill Blankenship/
In Topeka Civic Theatre & Academy´s production of ¨Flaming Idiots,¨ a farce by Tom Rooney, Ernesto (Devan R. Garcia), right, despite his Latino name and heavy Hispanic accent insists he is Norwegian when he applies for a busboy job at a restaurant owned by former postal workers Carl (Austen Hanley), left, and Phil (Matt Briden), middle.

When asked about the key factor in making ¨Flaming Idiots¨ funny, the younger actors agreed with Reilly and Smith.

¨Timing is probably the most important part of a farce,¨ Briden said.

Because ¨Flaming Idiots¨ is Hanley´s first farce, he said it was a challenge ¨figuring out the farce´s timing¨ because it differs from that of the many comedies in which he has had roles.

¨It´s so fast paced and everything has to be in the moment,¨ he continued. ¨It just asks for a lot, but once you have everything down, it really gets going and it´s a lot of fun.¨

Because of all the physical comedy and the carefully choreographed entrances and exits in which one character narrowly misses seeing the other, Briden said there is that ballet aspect to play and it is physically demanding.

Bill Blankenship/
When new restaurant owners Phil (Matt Briden), left, and Carl (Austen Hanley), middle, learn applicant for chef Bernadette (Alisha Bolz), right, is deaf, Carl thinks he must shout and mime to communicate with her in ¨Flaming Idiots,¨ a farce Topeka Civic Theatre & Academy, 3028 S.W. 8th, is staging through Feb. 11.

¨You work up a sweat every night,¨ Hanley said.

As for their roles, Hanley and Briden play polar opposite characters.

¨It´s really fun being clueless,¨ Hanley said, to which Briden replied, ´´And I enjoy being a buzzkill.¨

Director Reilly said the opportunity for TCTA audiences to see ¨Flaming Idiots¨ comes at a good time of the year.

¨After the holidays, what more do you want than just to be able to sit back, relax and have a belly laugh and forget about the credit card bills?¨ he asked.

In addition to Reilly, ¨Flaming Idiot´ś¨ creative team includes: Ted Shonka, set and lighting designer and technical director; Kate Stires, costume designer; Sara Myer, sound engineer; and Brenda Blackman, stage manager.


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