Meta farce

Blue Room sinks its teeth into dark Irish comedy

Dinny, flanked by his boys (from left: actors Dominic La Frantz, Joe Hilsee and Bandon Burchard).

Dinny, flanked by his boys (from left: actors Dominic La Frantz, Joe Hilsee and Bandon Burchard).

Photo by Alex Hilsee

The Walworth Farce shows Thursday-Saturday, Nov. 15-17, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $15
Blue Room Theatre
139 W. First St.

The Blue Room Theatre is known for bringing challenging modernist plays to our rural community, and the company’s latest production—Irish playwright Enda Walsh’s The Walworth Farce—is a profoundly hilarious, deeply disturbing and sometimes mystifying mélange of drama, comedy and absurdity that lives up to the tradition.

The action is set in the present day in a disheveled apartment on the 15th floor of a low-rent council estate in London. The public-housing unit is occupied by middle-age Dinny (Joe Hilsee) and his adult sons, Blake (Dominic La Frantz) and Sean (Brandon Burchard). The setup is immediately comedic and a bit surreal, with Dinny massaging lotion into his scalp and Blake unceremoniously beginning to dress in drag as a tinny recording of Bing Crosby singing “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral (That’s an Irish Lullaby)” plays softly in the background. Then Sean returns from picking up supplies at the local grocery and the farce begins in earnest.

The intricate clutter of the apartment—designed and decorated with consummate skill and attention to detail by Blue Room mainstay Amber Miller—becomes a character in the ritualistic play-within-a-play that the three men stage daily. The flat transforms into a luxurious estate in Cork, Ireland, that probably exists only in the fevered imagination of Dinny, who daily forces his sons to re-enact the tragic and violent events of 13 years prior that forced him to flee his native land. With multiple costume and character changes incorporating wigs false mustaches, and abrupt directorial alterations dictated by Dinny, the family troupe presents their play only to and for themselves.

La Frantz and Burchard inhabit the characters within their characters with grisly comic determination, both fearful of their father’s wrath and craving his approval of their portrayals of his imaginary past. Hilsee’s Dinny is the epitome of the unreliable narrator and scenery-chewing thespian lost in his own role. Deciphering the actual story behind his ritualized re-enactment is one of the play’s many worthwhile challenges, and one that even his sons, who were too young to remember events clearly, do not fully comprehend.

Just as the internal farce is reaching a peak, the entrance of Hayley (Zaria Turner)—a young woman who works at the store where Sean accidentally left some of the supplies earlier—disrupts the insular family drama. Turner gives Hayley a charmingly accepting if justifiably befuddled naiveté about just what kind of madness she has stumbled into, and so becomes a sort of on-stage surrogate for those of us in the actual audience. The boys’ straining to convey to Hayley their own anxieties while simultaneously acting out Dinny’s increasingly weird fantasy becomes a comedic subtext for both the external “reality” of their situation and farce that they continue for their father’s benefit.

The introduction of Hayley changes the tone of both the play-within-the-play and the play as seen from the Blue Room seats. What had felt like one of Monty Python’s more outlandish scenarios begins to feel like something co-authored by Edgar Allan Poe and avant-garde playwright Eugène Ionesco. It’s a shift of tone that is somewhat disconcerting, but also perfectly suited to the layered stories that the play inhabits.

This production, directed by Alex Hilsee (Joe’s daughter), demands and rewards audience attentiveness, and in so doing engages our imaginations in more ways than straightforward dramas or comedies could.